"Boro have an exciting crop of young players to follow England cap Stewart Downing and it’s essential that space is made for the likes of Lee Cattermole, James Morrison and Matthew Bates"
2006/07 proved to be a season of transition at the Riverside as Gareth Southgate replaced Steve McClaren and began the process of refashioning the squad inherited from the England manager. That process will continue throughout the coming campaign.
The England boss took Boro to a major trophy in 2004 and very nearly added the UEFA Cup in his final game but the defeat to Seville created the sense of a squad that had reached the limit of their collective potential. Southgate came in with a brief to add more energy and vigour to the playing staff.
The transition was embodied in the position vacated by the new boss. Southgate’s replacement turned out to be Jonathan Woodgate- initially on loan and then permanently as the season wound down. Boro now have one of Europe’s best centre backs in his prime. If injury permits- and it is a big ‘if’- Woodgate to be at his best, this is Boro’s most significant signing since the Ravanelli/Juninho coup back in 1996.
With Southgate moving to the dugout, several of his former playing colleagues also left. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Massimo Maccarone, Doriva ,Ray Parlour and Ugo Ehiogu were among those who said their goodbyes and for the whole season there was a feeling that players like Gaizka Mendieta and Fabio Rochemback weren’t part of the long term plan.
Boro have an exciting crop of young players to follow England cap Stewart Downing and it’s essential that space is made for the likes of Lee Cattermole, James Morrison and Matthew Bates.
Not surprisingly, the team were a bit inconsistent early in the campaign but reserved their best for the big clubs. Chelsea were beaten early on and the team came away with a battling draw at Arsenal- these two top results sandwiched a 4-0 home defeat to Portsmouth.
Defeats to Blackburn and Sheffield United were disappointing yet were followed by wins over Everton and Newcastle. That set a pattern for the whole season really- some days Boro could rip into teams and play exciting soccer or they could be limpet-like in defence, only to follow it up with mediocre displays.
At home Boro were fairly tough to beat, though six teams went away with the points. The away record was simply unacceptable with just two wins all season and they came at Charlton and Wigan.
Like Fulham in previous seasons Middlesbrough were one of those teams that always did enough to stay away from the relegation zone without ever looking like they would seriously challenge for the top half of the table. There was an FA Cup run to bring a little excitement but Manchester United ended Boro hopes in the 6th Round after replay.
The positives from the year included the number of games played by Cattermole, Andrew Taylor, Morrison and Andrew Davies. Julio Arca brought spirit and intelligence to midfield and of course Yakubu and Mark Viduka were good for over 30 goals between them.
Viduka gambled that Newcastle will finish higher in the table and left, so Jeremy Aladiere has come in, which could indicate a more mobile, pacy strike force at the club. Gareth Southgate will continue to reshape the squad to give it more zest, spirit and motivation because there were still times when Boro underperformed.
George Boateng has been the driving force at the Riverside since he arrived from Aston Villa but there is even doubt about his place in the manager’s plans. In a short time there may be few of McClaren’s senior players left at the club.
2007/08 is likely to be another consolidating campaign. The main ambition will be to push on to the top half of the table and possibly sneak a way into Europe, while rebuilding the squad. Woodgate should offer a focus to make the team hard to beat but the fans will be hoping to see consistent levels of performance and more passion to wear the shirt.