The Rebuild - Why Boro Are Always Rebuilding
Updated: Apr 28
In the midst of Championship darkness Boro find themselves in their fourth rebuild in as many seasons. Rebuilding is a term Boro fans have gotten used to over the years and it’s becoming a vicious cycle which Boro can’t get out of.
Years of hiring, firing, buying, selling and letting contracts run down Boro have found themselves having a severely unbalanced team, with players from 3-4 previous managers and no clear identity. Boro have a fantastic manager in Neil Warnock, he’s had more success in football than I've had birthdays. He’s a truly excellent coach. But I worry for the day he leaves. Once he does, we’ll have the exact same problem which we’ve had for many years. A new manager will come in, won’t like half the squad, will try to implement a new system and we’ll fall into the rebuild years once again... Rebuild 5.0.
Can you categorically say Middlesbrough Football Club has an identity from top to bottom? They have values, and very good values, you can find those with our podcast with Lidds here. But identity, I don’t think you can.
Identity, project and style are all utopia words that get thrown around by football fans and pundits lately but let’s be clear; they’re not impossible to reach. They’re very possible and when a club identity project kicks in, it works very well: see Norwich, Brighton, Brentford, Swansea, Leeds, Southampton, Wolves, Leicester, Man City etc…
So why are Boro stuck in the rebuild phase and how do you get a project like this off the ground? Well, it starts from the very top.
The Chairman and The Board
Steve Gibson is a fantastic chairman, there’s no doubt in my mind that he is still the right man for Middlesbrough Football Club but ultimately he’s being badly advised on footballing decisions. Many clubs have benefited in bringing in a Director of Football, someone who knows the game inside out and is not afraid to tell it how it is and how to ensure the club identity remains intact. Stuart Webber at Norwich City is a fine example of how a DoF can help a club. On ‘The High-Performance Podcast’ he explains Norwich would say the term ‘best in class’ at everything, Portacabins for changing rooms? Best in class. Horrible food in the canteen? Best in class. Players slacking during training? Best in class. Stuart Webber on his second day at Norwich: “This is s*** this, nothing here is f****** best in class”. He quickly spoke to Delia Smith, identified how they wanted to play, changed the model of recruitment, changed the culture, built a new training ground and instilled a new club mindset.
Not overnight, of course, it took time to implement all of this, but now, Norwich can say they are the best in class.
Gibson would benefit from a DoF, hiring a DoF would allow Bausor to smile more and focus on commercialisation which he’s good at and not footballing decisions. Having a clear identity will save Gibson money over time in overhauling player recruitment and hiring managers because it’s a system which, yes, will need to be tweaked but when a new manager comes in, the transition will naturally be smaller and there's a platform which they can build on.
Picking an identity - This can always be tweaked, but pick one and stick to it.
Next up, it’s the manager. From 1995 to 2006, Middlesbrough had two managers Bryan Robson and Steve McClaren (you can throw Venables in there but he wasn’t technically the manager). Those two managers brought the most successful years in Middlesbrough’s recent history.
Since then, we’ve appointed EIGHT permanent managers in 15 years, but the one time we were patient with a project, it took us to the Premier League. It’s clear, Boro are now operating on short term tactics and have no long term strategy.
Anyway on the above, hypothetically Gibson now has a specific style in place, he has his goal in mind which is a stable Premier League Club. Now enter the God of Championship football, Neil Warnock.
Right now, Boro have a successful manager in charge, we’ve got the goal in mind and he’s building a new nucleus. He’s clearly building something.
But what if Warnock decides to leave? Or gets sacked? Boro are stuck with a squad of Neil Warnock players which a new manager may not want, i.e Garry Monk to Tony Pulis, two completely different contrasts in style. This is when rebuild 5.0 kicks in.
If Boro had an identity and a specific style, then this wouldn’t happen as frequently.
Have a manager which fits YOUR system, not the other way around.
The Nucleus / Core Group
With any manager they want to have a core, a nucleus, their stamp on things, normally, when a new manager comes in he tends to sign 4-5 players which helps get their message and style across.
In Boro’s case, we went from a possession style football in Karanka and Monk, to Tony Pulis-ball which is 25% of the ball, 50 centre mids, no creativity and fan resentment.
Boro’s squad in 17/18 under Monk/Pulis should have HMS Pissed the League. But it never came close, it had a manager with one style and players which would have been better suited to something different.
At the end of this season, Boro will finally get rid of their biggest earners, four years AFTER they joined and only Jonny Howson will remain as a Garry Monk signing.
Four years, four years of big earners, four different managers and would you say we got the best out of them? Absolutely not. Why? Well, individually the players need to take responsibility to adapt, but did we play to their strengths? No.
The Nucleus - Bring in players to fit the system for your identity, not your manager.
For a project like this to happen, you need to trust the process. Finding an identity, signing a core nucleus, recruiting players, finding results. It all takes time. Achieving goals is never a straight line, it’s full of peaks and troughs.
At times, you will think Boro have made huge strides and sometimes, it will look like we’re going back over.
It’s a test and a learning strategy. It's a small adjustment over time. It’s a winning and learning mentality. Football nowadays is a results-based business, but if you focus on them too much you become short in other areas. I’m not saying results aren’t important, they are. However, allowing something to progress and to develop over time will actually be more sustainable for Boro over time, rather than sticking black tape over leaky pipes.
If Boro went down a project route, you need to trust the process, it’s all in the foundation.
Funnily enough, You. You, reading this, you’re just as important as the points above. Fans need to be bought into a project. Something they can resonate with. Boro can have whatever identity they want, but if it doesn’t resonate with the fans, then the disconnect begins once again, i.e Tony Pulis. Loved by Gibson, hated by fans.
What’s football without fans. There’s your answer why.
Fans need to agree with what Boro are building and the DoF / Gibson needs to stick with / more public about it.
Why do Boro find themselves in the rebuilding phase?
Simple, they’re not planning long term to get out of it. Too much tactics, not enough strategy. Steve Gibson needs to think about the replacement of Warnock and Boro’s future now. Not because Warnock is getting sacked, far from it. He’s the man to take Boro forward, but it’s after him.
Projects are hard to create and get right. No project was a success overnight, they need time to develop. In sport, fans and pundits only see the highlight reel, but it’s the process behind the scenes, It’s building the foundations, it’s setting them in stone, It’s the non-negotiables that make this work.
A project can have some incredible highs and some incredible lows. A project may feel as though it’s not working at the start but over time, it can blossom into something beautiful.
Boro is a great club, with some incredible, incredible people working there, truly, wonderful people. This club is in great hands and Neil Warnock could be the start of ‘Project Boro’, The Mowbray before the Karanka era but the man above him needs help.
He invests so much in the town and the club but it's a shame to see him waste it time and time again because of poor advice, short term planning and no real substance.