• Bailey Williams

The Strange Case of Harold Moukoudi

The January 2020 deadline day saw the arrival on loan of two players to Middlesbrough, both of whom will no doubt be part of future Boro trivia quizzes. While the signing of the notorious Ravel Morrison stole the headlines, the more successful loan was that of centre-back Harold Moukoudi from Saint-Etienne.

Boro’s defence was in dire need of stability. Employing a wing-back system that got the best out of Hayden Coulson and Djed Spence left the core of defence chronically over-exposed and low on confidence. Dael Fry especially was a shadow of his former self at the back. Moukoudi promised to be the man to pull together the fractious Boro defence. The Cameroonian stopper made an auspicious start to his time on Teesside, featuring first in a 3-2 loss to Brentford, and then a 2-2 draw with relegation rivals Wigan. It was in this hectic match that Moukoudi scored one of the most peculiar Boro own goals in some time, catching an errant cross from Nathan Byrne on his head and sending it in off the bar. A distraught-looking Moukoudi was consoled at full-time by manager Jonathan Woodgate.

Recovering from this false start, Moukoudi became one of the more dependable members of a besieged Boro defence. Despite earning plaudits for his sheer power and adaptability, the side were still conceding at a worrying rate. There was a lingering sense that we hadn’t seen Moukoudi in full flow, but the coaching team were quick to praise. Woodgate was emphatic in the press, hailing him as a future Premier League player, and rumours circulated that Moukoudi could make the switch permanently. Above all, Moukoudi just seemed likeable. I recall a picture of him in Darlington Morrison’s with two young fans going ‘Boro Twitter viral’ mere weeks after his signing. His composure was reaching a peak in March, when Middlesbrough recorded a 1-0 win over Charlton, their first victory in eleven.

And then, of course, the season was suspended.

When football resumed with the now-infamous Swansea match, Moukoudi was ruled out by illness, replaced by Ryan Shotton. Woodgate, Moukoudi’s greatest advocate, was sacked three days later. He was an unused substitute for Neil Warnock’s first two games in charge, with the new boss preferring the veteran George Friend to partner with Fry in a back two.

Moukoudi would get one final bow as a Boro player, signing off in as bizarre a fashion as he had arrived. On 5th July, Middlesbrough faced QPR at home, and Warnock raised eyebrows by playing Moukoudi in a never-before-seen holding midfield role. In fairness, you can understand Warnock’s logic. With his power and vision, Warnock felt Moukoudi could break up attacks from the talismanic Eberechi Eze. Though Warnock believed that Moukoudi had done “ever so well”, Boro lost the game 1-0 thanks to a fluke Jordan Hugill goal. It was to be Moukoudi’s final appearance.

A week after the QPR game, Moukoudi was gone, whisked back to France by his parent club. A Coupe de France final against PSG loomed and Saint-Etienne needed centre-back options. He nobly wanted to play his part in Boro’s relegation battle, and the staff were keen to keep him amidst the premature departures of Shotton and Ayala, but Les Verts boss Claude Puel had the final say. There was a feeling of inevitability as Saint-Etienne lost 1-0, though Moukoudi did feature from the bench. You couldn’t help but laugh at Moukoudi going from marking Jordan Hugill to marking Neymar in the space of a month.

Despite speculation that Saint-Etienne would cash in on Moukoudi, he stayed on at the Ligue 1 club, and worked hard to earn a starting place. He played his first game of the season for Les Verts in late September against Nantes, just as they span into a poor losing run. Nevertheless, Moukoudi’s fortunes would soon turn around. The ex-Boro lad has since overseen some hard-fought clean sheets, an assist and even his first Saint-Etienne goal, heading in smartly from a corner to open the scoring against Nimes on 20th December 2020. In his second meeting with PSG two weeks later, he came close to scoring another bullet header, and did well to keep Kylian Mbappé (!) quiet. Saint-Etienne have had their struggles, but Moukoudi is practically immovable from the side. He joins the ranks of myriad other ex-Boro players to whom Teesside was the final stop before they really kicked on.

It would be fascinating to see Moukoudi playing in the Middlesbrough team of today, one that is far more composed in attack and defence. A back three of Moukoudi, McNair, and Fry with wing-backs is a frightening proposition for any attacker. Or perhaps Moukoudi could have become a midfield destroyer, carving up space in the middle of the park for Saville or Tavernier to make incisive runs. These are all tantalising thoughts, but we will never know for sure. Moukoudi is continuing to prove that Woodgate’s enthusiasm was well-placed. As far as ‘future Boro quiz questions’ go, he was certainly one of the better performers. While he played only cameo role in one of Boro’s most forgettable seasons, there is certainly something memorable about the arresting sight of Moukoudi marshalling the defence, breaking up play, and careering a header into his own net.

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