Friday, 21 September 2012

Gordon Strachan: An "Appreciation"

Si's Insights tries to take everyone's minds off the Blackpool Battering by reminding us that things could be a lot worse...


I'd predicted a black week of the worst kind. Even before The Blackpool Battering, as we'll now call it, I'd felt that we had enough quality to see off most of the "middle order" teams, but would struggle against the "big teams", in this case, the early pacesetters for promotion.

So my expectations were pretty much met on Tuesday night. But it was still painful to see them met in such devastating and dispiriting fashion, particularly as we'd ably, if uncomfortably, consolidated our 100% home record (an even more impressive feat when you take today’s attendances into consideration) only days before.

I'm not asking for Boro, especially a relatively bargain basement Boro, to consistently compete with the best in the division. The harsh reality that we might not be able to do so is all too evident. But for once, just once, it would be nice not to have any sort of promotion pretense hammered the moment we take on one of the best teams in the Championship. We've been there before.

We can but turn our minds to Blackburn and hope (that's an especially strong word now) for better. For now, I think the best thing to do is remind ourselves that for all the disquiet we're currently feeling over inconsistent form, being hammered by teams we hoped we could compete with, and so on, things could be worse. Much worse.

Hence I pass you over to my colleague, Mike Baker, and his "appreciation" of former Boro manager Gordon Strachan, originally written in October 2010.

* * * * *

"There came a point where updating my website stopped being much fun. It should have been great. We'd gotten a new manager who started tossing the destinies of players about like a professional card shark, and who promised much about where the club was going whilst turning out to be so poor in almost all areas that everything seems shabbier as a result. If that isn't critical gold, then I don't know what is.

"Yet I found it all so incredibly trying, much like going to see the Boro throughout Strachan's time in charge. When it came down to it, I got bored. There appeared to be so little to hold on to, such a lack of spark, imagination and even care about the team that I started to feel much the same way about it. Clearly, I'm not alone. Gordon's era was a dreary one, and people voted with their feet. It reminded me an awful lot of when I first moved to Manchester in the mid-1990's and went to Maine Road after falling in with some City fans. Dreadful fare it was, with the utterly uninspiring Frank Clark in charge of a bunch of Blues who were heading nowhere. As chance would have it, this was when Boro were becoming a rising force. Talk about ironies.

"So where does one begin to analyse what went wrong under Gordon? Why not at the beginning, when he presided over such a hangdog and suspicious press conference that something seemed wrong even then. Like everyone, I tried to find the positives in what he was saying, but it wasn't easy. He talked of making immediate improvements, which in balance sounded wrong as it was like suggesting that what he had to work with wasn't good enough. Maybe he was right, but what a message to give to his players. That's before he started laying into the likes of Dawn Thewlis, demonstrating all his scorn for the local media, not to mention women who have the temerity to be sports journalists. Encouraging it was not.

"That said, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Everyone knows Strachan's best is never before the press. A renowned fitness expert, relentless trainer and winner, we all waited to watch him kick the side's backside into gear. Shape up, or get out! Only it didn't really happen. Gordon appeared to target Boro's overseas contingent as being to blame for our ills. Digard was packed off to Nice. Emnes found himself effectively on gardening leave. He then tried to solve the team's lack of bite up front by signing strikers. Marcus Bent turned up on loan and did nothing. Dave Kitson was next. He started like a rocket and then declared he wasn't interested in staying once the people had the cheek to like what they saw. In January 2010, Gordon went back to his old stamping ground in Glasgow to snap up Scott McDonald, whilst also signing Barry Robson as the man who'd attack from midfield. Lee Miller came from Aberdeen for reasons none of us are very sure about, and Willo Flood turned up to add some bite and running in the middle of the park.

"The aim was to build a more gutsy, gritty, blood, sweat and tears Boro, a greasy fighting machine based on the Celtic model, and one in which there was less room for Academy graduates. Tales are emerging from the club of belittling antics against the former youth teamers, screaming bouts at Joe Bennett and Jonathan Franks in front of the senior pros, moments viewed publicly that only hint at what went on behind closed doors. This was tomorrow's Middlesbrough, a team deconstructed in double quick time by a manager who only had time for experience. Four Academy graduates left during his year in office. Two of these – Josh Walker and John Johnson – were axed freely. That's years of nurturing, blooding and training up in smoke.

"The results famously didn't come. We had plenty of false dawns, cautious whispers of turned corners as we recorded the occasional win here, didn’t lose for three matches in a row there. It was far from enough. Points were dropped like dog ends at a Wetherspoon’s door as we failed to make any impression on the league places that mattered in 2009/10. It was a poor Championship, and we were poorest of all, giving away wins and learning no lessons.

"Gordon was allowed to spend money in the summer of 2010 and wasted no time in doing so. We marvelled at his strategy of ensuring Boro had a strong spine, which it looked like it had. We rolled in the excitement of latching on to the all-time leading scorer in the SPL – who held it before Boyd? Henrik Larsson? Oh yes please, we'd like a bit of that. Kevin Thomson looked like exactly what we needed in the centre of the park. Strachan reignited the Wheater-McManus partnership that was so sturdy in 2009/10. He might have allowed Taylor and Grounds – two more Academy lads – to go off on loan, but it didn't matter because in came Matt Kilgallon from Sunderland.

"It all looked so good, so much so that it was easy to ignore the lack of pace in Strachan's remoulded team, the vortex in place of a presence on the flanks, the absence of any attempt to replace Adam Johnson or find a right winger, or indeed to come up with a visible link between midfield and the strikers. Sure enough, the bumper crowd that watched Boro take on Ipswich saw the home team get punished. By the end of August, we were out of the League Cup and had gone down tamely to Barnsley, with respect the sort of team any self-respecting promotion challenger needed to beat. Injuries didn't help, but the gaps in Strachan's team – gaps he had been given all summer to fill – were now yawning chasms. We had nothing at left-back. Boyd and McDonald were left to float about aimlessly, swallowed by Championship defences. Gordon stuck to his 4-4-2 principles, seemingly impervious to the suggestion that flat rows of players aren't the answer. How often we saw opposition teams content to remain behind the ball, only to venture out on quick counter attacks when we didn't have the pace to stop them from being dangerous.

"Perhaps all this nonsense worked in Glasgow, when Gordon was at the helm of Scotland's best resourced outfit and could simply bully opponents who were daft enough to play the same game. In England, his philosophy looked outdated, his thinking static. Then there was the ever fractious relationship with local reporters, the notorious "drink, take drugs, smoke" comment that was supposed to be fly but sounded arrogant and uncaring.

"It’s not often I can claim a Boro manager's time in charge to be almost entirely without virtue. I certainly didn't think that about Southgate, and even Colin Todd – perhaps in my supporting lifetime the worst of the rest – wasn't really so bad. Gordon Strachan never appeared to get to grips with the Boro job. The worst moment was finding the squad he had this season was pretty much his, so quickly had he dismantled the lightweight side over which Gareth had presided over, and then we saw it was rubbish. Not the players. Individually, they seem rather good in most cases (still not sure about Miller). Their failings came from the top. Gordon had to go. It was as though he was determined to make good on his promise to get us out of the division, but... er... you didn't specify in which direction, y'ken?

"So goodbye Gordon. You were awful. You took a tremendous management opportunity, spent our money and sent us spiralling off in reverse. Save for the dignity with which you took your final curtain, I can find barely a good thing to say about your time here. I hope we never make this sort of mistake again."

* * * * *


"I can barely find a good thing to say about your time here." A rather damning indictment of our former boss and the seemingly irreparable damage he caused Middlesbrough FC. And I hate to say it, but I pretty much agree with Mike overall on the endurance test that was Strachan’s one year reign. (His treatment of Josh Walker, in particular, still leaves a horrible taste in the mouth.)

However, when looking closer, it's more than possible to cut the guy some slack.

Without Strachan there might not have been a Jason Steele or a Luke Williams, two exciting young players that we now hope will start a league match, or in Luke's case, at least contribute to one, every week. Without Strach there would be no Scott McDonald, who, despite his wastefulness and subsequent exile, has scored critical goals and provided our attack with some much needed quality. Without Strach there would be no Kevin Thomson, and while that can be seen as a mixed blessing, the fact that he is still a regular fixture in Mogga's line-ups – when fit, at least – speaks for itself.

Without Strach there would have been no Barry Robson, the driving, creative force of the early years of Mogga's reign and, despite his short fuse, an inspirational "old head" for youngsters to look up to. And without Strach, there would be no Nicky Bailey, a man deemed as indispensable by many last season, to the point where I named him "Boro’s Roy Keane".

It remains to be seen, of course, if a couple of highly memorable games (the 5-1 win over QPR, that 2-2 draw with Newcastle) and a series of very skilled and important players (excepting the unlucky Willo Flood, the ineffective Chris Killen and the even more ineffective Lee Miller) can totally obliterate the memories of what really was an Annus Horribilis for Boro.

But I think now we can at least appreciate the groundwork Strachan laid for the Moggalution. Indeed, such groundwork summed him up perfectly; while he could provide the players, he just could not create a cohesive, efficient, penetrative unit with them.

In other words, he had all the gear... but no idea.

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