It’s been a rollercoaster ride of a season for Middlesbrough and from a Boro point of view; it’s fair to say that it’s had more downs than ups. With four games to go it seems the players and fans have long accepted that the Riverside Stadium will be hosting Championship football next season.
The season began with high hopes of returning to the top tier of English football at the first attempt. Although many of the clubs’ big stars, including – Downing, Huth, Tuncay and Alves were sold, the squad looked in good shape under manager Gareth Southgate. But these high hopes and expectations were soon put into perspective when Boro hosted Sheffield United for the first game of the new football league season; a bland 0-0 draw and a flat atmosphere demonstrated the grim reality of life in the Championship for Middlesbrough.
A terrible start to the season, which included a humiliating 5-0 drubbing at the hands of West Brom saw manager Gareth Southgate axed in October. The fans spirit was lifted with the appointment of Gordon Strachan, but as the season went on, many began to question the decision, as the club drifted further from the promotion places. The squad is barely recognisable to that seen under Gareth Southgate, with players such as Mcmanus, Robson, Naughton and Mcdonald beginning to make an impact, but with four difficult games remaining and ideally four wins needed; their efforts seem to have come too late.
Saturday sees the Boro host Sheffield Wednesday, who themselves have it all to play for as far as staying in the division is concerned. Nothing other than three points will do, going into the crucial game away to West Brom, however it has largely been Boro’s inconsistent home form against the lower sides that has been the downfall this season. Yet again Gordon Strachan looks set to name a patched up side, with the club being hit by a virus and a long injury list. Arguably the team’s best player Gary O’Neil faces spending another game in the stands, following a £1million contract clause that would mean Middlesbrough paying his old club Portsmouth £1million when he makes his 100th Boro appearance; the tally currently stands at 99, prompting speculation of a move away from the Riverside in the summer.
Without a doubt, the make or break game will be at the Hawthorns against an impressive West Brom side. Boro will also have revenge on their minds following the 5-0 home thrashing earlier in the season. The Baggies home form has been head and shoulders above that of Middlesbrough this season and Di Matteo’s side look a certainty for promotion. Anything other than a win would realistically end any chances of making the final play-off spot. Boro would need to score an early goal, something which they have struggled to do all season and defend a lead.
The final home game at the Riverside therefore may turn out to be a dead-rubber against Coventry City. However both sides can statistically make the play-offs at the moment and depending on other results leading up to the game, all may be still to play for. The atmosphere may make an impact on the teams’ performance, but with an average attendance of only 19,000 this season, it is evident that the Boro fans may have lost faith in their side.
If Boro are to miraculously clinch a play-off place, then they are going to have to do it the hard way, away to fellow contenders Leicester. The Foxes are in a strong position and may already have secured their play-off place before the final day. Former Boro legend Nigel Pearson has taken the club from strength to strength over the past two seasons and back to back promotions are not yet out of the equation. This game may signal the end of a disastrous season for Middlesbrough; but providing they can go into the game still with a chance, it would give the travelling fans a glimmer of hope.
Overall, this season has been one to forget for the club, with too many points dropped at the hands of lower sides. Gordon Strachan has failed in his attempt to turn the club into title contenders since taking over as manager, despite bringing in a number of his old boys from Celtic and around Scotland. The end of season run in could not have been more testing for Boro, who cannot afford any slip ups if they are to stake a late claim for a play-off place. But it seems all eyes will be on possible summer signings for next season in a bid to make lighter work of returning to the top flight and most importantly, winning back the fans.