From Sevilla to Scunthorpe: Mowbray the man to halt Boro's slide
FourFourTwo.com's man in the North East Kristan Heneage on Middlesbrough's struggles adapting to life in the Championship...
In May 2006 Middlesbrough were playing Sevilla in the UEFA Cup Final. In the week the club will celebrate the fifth anniversary of the culmination of that fantastic Cup run they will play Doncaster Rovers - who five years ago finished eighth in League One, a stark reminder of just how far Middlesbrough have fallen.
The team from that night featured some big names - Mark Schwarzer, Stewart Downing, Mark Viduka and Yakubu Ã¢ÂÂ the latter of whom came back to terrorize his former club with a hat-trick in a tense 3-3 draw with Leicester at the Riverside recently.
When the club were relegated to the Championship many expected a swift return to the top flight, but following a slow start to their first season back in the second tier the surprising decision was made to replace Gareth Southgate with Gordon Strachan, and from there the problems only worsened.
The former Celtic manager looked to draw on his time in the SPL, which saw an influx of Scotsmen and former Bhoys players, to minimal success. Couple that with his distaste for the media and it wasnÃ¢ÂÂt long before the local press turned on the diminutive Scot and a mutual termination seemed both fair and expected.
On the field, much like Strachan, his signings promised much but delivered little. His tactics seemed out-dated and signing no wingers when employing the less than mobile Kris Boyd as target man seemed a confusing decision. Boyd himself is currently on loan at Nottingham Forest with current manager Tony Mowbray confirming the ex-Rangers man has no future at the Riverside. His wages are seen as a burden on the club as they attempt to restructure financially.
The rebuilding job began with the dismissal of Strachan and appointment of former club captain Tony Ã¢ÂÂMoggaÃ¢ÂÂ Mowbray. With an emphasis on bringing through local youth bore from necessity over desire, players such as captain Matthew Bates and Rhys Williams have been seen as the clubÃ¢ÂÂs future. Owner Steve Gibson is attempting to fix the problems of the last few years.
The new mantra of youth promotion seems an obvious decision, the only surprise is that itÃ¢ÂÂs taken so long. A look back at the recent academy graduates provides an impressive list. Players like Lee Cattermole, Stewart Downing, David Wheater, Ross Turnbull and most recently Adam Johnson have all flown the nest and are still plying their trade in the Premier League. Even Danny Graham, the ChampionshipÃ¢ÂÂs top goalscorer, began at MiddlesbroughÃ¢ÂÂs academy. ItÃ¢ÂÂs clear those in charge of the academy have an eye for talent and the skill and patience to develop it, which made the influx of expensive imports following the clubÃ¢ÂÂs relegation all the more baffling.
However, through injuries and some forced sales, the likes of Seb Hines, Joe Bennett and Andrew Taylor have been given the chance to prove their worth in the first team - and theyÃ¢ÂÂve taken it well. Hines seems an adequate replacement for the departed David Wheater and Bennett recently celebrated another call up to represent England U21Ã¢ÂÂs against Iceland.
With a long term goal in mind, Mowbray is not planning too far ahead. Despite currently sitting 18th in the Championship table, they are all but safe from relegation, despite scares earlier in the season. In many ways the summer will see much larger changes in the playing staff at Middlesbrough. The kind of ÃÂ£10 million kitty Strachan received wonÃ¢ÂÂt be available, but with a cull of high earners and a small outlay on transfers there is potential for a solid play-off push.
Off the pitch Mowbray is attempting to reinvigorate a stagnated former Premier League side. The dip in attendances is hard to ignore and Middlesbrough have gone from big draws for television money to rarely seen outside of the BBCÃ¢ÂÂs highlights show. He articulates himself well and you canÃ¢ÂÂt help but feel the club are in good hands with him at the helm.
In the wider context this season served as another huge warning sign for The Boro. The rule of Ã¢ÂÂnobody is too good to go downÃ¢ÂÂ applies not only to the top tier of English football, itÃ¢ÂÂs just as true in the Championship. Sheffield Wednesday and Chartlon Athletic are prime proof that the further you fall the harder it is to get back up again - it truly is the proverbial Ã¢ÂÂslippery slopeÃ¢ÂÂ.
But the weekendÃ¢ÂÂs gritty last gasp victory against Sheffield United showed signs of a change in fortunes - even if the side followed that win by blowing a 3-1 lead to draw at Ipswich on Tuesday evening. With a squad finally united, it seems Mowbray has offered a clean slate to many of the clubÃ¢ÂÂs former outcasts. This was typified by the fact SaturdayÃ¢ÂÂs match-winner - Marvin Emnes was deemed surplus to requirements under Strachan and even loaned out to Championship rivals Swansea.
Next season will not be easy for the club, with the Championship a notoriously difficult league to succeed in. However the future does look promising on Teeside, with Argentine Julio Arca already looking to next season for the club's first real promotion push. The former Sunderland midfielder recently said "I knew it would take some time but you can see slowly the team's getting better, solid passing, we're scoring a lot of goals."