As a Middlesbrough fan I have enjoyed/endured a rollercoaster of emotions, particularly over the past eight years. We have had astronomical highs where we have seen our first silverware after 128 years of waiting, our first two European adventures, a UEFA cup final after a quarter final and a semi-final where we needed to score four goals in a half! Then we were knocked from our pedestal completely as we were relegated to the Championship, seen big money signings flop and failed to mount a serious assault on promotion… until now.
Last year, it was around this stage in the season that we were flying high again. I got ahead of myself and I was sure we were going to be contending for the top two spots come May. You would think that after years of following Boro that I would have learned to expect the unexpected. I was forewarned, with my fiancee’s father telling me that ‘Boro come down faster than the decorations after Christmas’ and he was right. We dropped like a stone. With only two wins in our last twelve matches we failed to reach the playoff spots and although seventh was a he achievement with the squad we had, it hurt. It hurt because the cynics where right and it hurt because it was well within our grasp, but injuries and inconsistency led to our fall.
So what has changed? Why am I allowing myself to get excited yet again? And am I just setting myself up for another disappointment?
I don’t think I am. I think that this year will be different, not because of hope or blind faith but through a number of logical factors. Firstly, injuries often plague Middlesbrough, as they do most clubs, but we have already come through our injury crisis and done so with outstanding results. Injuries to arguably our best player in Rhys Williams, our best striker in Jutkiewicz, our most experienced player in Jonathan Woodgate and an incredible prospect in Carayol have been dealt with easily. Plus we have Williams and Carayol returning in the busy festive period.
We have gone from a good team to a good squad. We have had nineteen different scorers so far this season and there are goals coming from all over the pitch. There is a blend of youth and experience across the park and we are developing consistency. Although our lofty standings in the league are predominantly a reflection of the past eight unbeaten games, we looked stronger before that. Even when we weren’t playing well, we were finding ways of grinding out results and this is not what we saw last season. We are much more consistent in our style of play, and the results that it was producing. Too many times last year, I found myself picking positives from games where we played well but didn’t get the result. Now the points are rolling in.
The final reason I would put forward is that this is very much a Mowbray team. He inherited an immense wage bill from Strachan for what were under performing players. Last year saw around 15 departures and only a handful of arrivals, thus making seventh seem like a huge achievement. The wage bill was reduced dramatically and has left space for some incredible bargains that suit a system of fluid passing football that has been a hallmark of all Mowbray’s teams. He has galvanised a couple of the big earners in Hoyte and Macdonald who our surpassing my own and several others’ expectations with performances this year. Friend has been magnificent at left back and Carayol looks to be an exciting prospect, coming in at under a million pounds for the pair. McEachran has come in on loan from Chelsea and has slotted in well and the youthful contingent such as Adam Reach and Luke Williams have been fantastic, chipping in with goals and producing high level performances in a very tough division.
I know that it may seem like I am building myself up for another fall and again climbing back on to that pedestal to be knocked off once again. My rose tinted glasses however, shall remain fixed. We won’t drop after Christmas, we will get stronger again. With imminent returns from injury, a surge of confidence and some belief from both the fans and the players themselves, I’m hoping this part of the Boro rollercoaster is without a big dip and we can actually do it this year.