Amongst all the doom and gloom surrounding the scene at the Riverside following last season’s dramatic slump, Leon Wobschall discovers a chink of light to a brighter future.
DURING a Spring of discontent on Teesside, sections of Middlesbrough supporters began to think the unthinkable. That Tony Mowbray’s time at the Riverside was up.
To even slightly question the tenure of the man Boro fans universally known as Mogga – a Holgate hero regarded as ‘one of their own’ by scores of Teessiders – was not just a country mile off as recently as New Year’s Eve. Try the length of the M1.
Boro were then in third spot in the Championship, just a point behind Hull City and well primed for promotion back to the top-flight, which they vacated in 2008-09.
What has happened since 2013 got underway has been truly epic. Unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons for confidence-crushed Boro and their embattled manager.
An appalling run of just three wins in 21 matches and 12 points from a possible 63 – relegation form with a capital R – saw Boro finish an under-whelming 16th.
They even suffered the ignominy of nervously looking over their shoulders towards the drop zone at one stage before a rare victory over Nottingham Forest ensured the season narrowly avoided becoming their biggest unmitigated disaster since 1985-86 when the club were relegated to the third tier.
Through it all, the ‘Boro nation’ winced and cursed and then cursed some more. Mowbray was left to survey what increasingly resembled a car-crash wreckage with countless changes having no effect.
The end of season simply could not come fast enough. While the close season has handed Mowbray invaluable time to take stock and plot a major squad overhaul and given embarrassed fans the chance to draw breath and collectively lick their wounds, it is not pushing it to say the clock is ticking in regard the Boro chief’s quest to turn the Riverside tide as never before.
It is non-negotiable that Boro must avoid starting this season as they ended the last – as realist and proud man Mowbray will know all too well.
But out of adversity, Mowbray is unquestionably the sort who will always draw strength. What does not kill you, makes you stronger...
He famously earned his stripes on and off the pitch by showing inspirational leadership when Boro rose from the ashes in 1986 to secure back-to-back promotions to the top-flight.
Chairman Steve Gibson, a man Boro fans are eternally grateful to for playing the key role in saving them from oblivion in that dark summer of ’86, is also cut from the same cloth as Mowbray.
Both may be hurting at the club’s demise last term, but they remain fighters and comrades-in-arms. Just as they were 27 years ago.
Mowbray acknowledged: “Football is a results business.
“Do I feel secure? My nature is to keep fighting, to never give in.
“If this club over the last 20 or 30 years hadn’t shown that sort of resolve, God knows where it would have been after 1986.
“For me, it’s a case of working hard. I’m not here to stand in the way of this football club, if someone can do better then I’ve got no problem with that.
“I only want to see this team, this club, this town, prosper.
“I think the owner of this club feels the same. I feel as if my relationship with the chairman will ultimately decide my future at this football club. At this moment, the chairman is being supportive because I think he understands.
“Together, we have to find a way to give ourselves a fighter’s chance, a puncher’s chance to get out of this league.”
Major changes to the Boro playing squad, chiefly of the outgoing variety, were soon instigated at the end of last term.
Big-earners Nicky Bailey and Stephen McManus have gone, with the wage bill further trimmed by the recent exit of Scott McDonald, who agreed a severance package with his deal – worth around £30,000 a week – still having a year to run.
Others, such as Andre Bikey, and Merouane Zemmama have also departed, with Mowbray’s chief transfer priority being a new central defensive enforcer.
Only three other Championship clubs leaked more goals in 2012-13 – with Mowbray mindful that fitness doubts hampered Jonathan Woodgate and Seb Hines, with injury and form issues also afflicting Rhys Williams, rated at £6m not so long ago.
A need for a prolific striker is also of key importance, especially given the exit of last season’s top-scorer McDonald, the only player to breach double figures with 12 goals.
Mowbray’s search has been painstaking and frustrating, but the main shaft of light remains – Boro’s production line of youthful talent.
Hopes are high this season could prove a breakthrough one for the likes of Adam Reach and Ben Gibson – nephew of the chairman.
Several other rookie talents such as highly-rated England Under-17 captain Bryn Morris are also waiting in the wings at a club whose flower of youth famously blossomed into a paradise garden in the mid to late 80s through the likes of Gary Pallister, Colin Cooper and Stuart Ripley. A repeat would be welcome.