Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Mido & Afonso Alves: An Appreciation

Si's Insights examines two strikers that could have been contenders for cult hero status - but went down in Boro history as something rather different

In 2007, it appeared that Gareth Southgate had wasted no time in making his mark in the Middlesbrough managerial role.

The 2007-08 season had barely kicked off, and Aiyegbeni Yakubu, the final remnant of the strong frontline Steve McClaren bequeathed to Southgate, had been transferred to Everton.

Now, at a time when Boro were famed for not scoring enough goals when it mattered, this was seen as a potential crisis – to this day, Southgate continues to get chided for the sale of Danny Graham – but one should remember that Graham had Viduka and Yakubu ahead of him in the pecking order at the time.

And, give Southgate credit where credit’s due, he made the effort to rebuild the Boro strike force in his own image.

Cue, with the exception of Tuncay, Leroy Lita and possibly Marvin Emnes, ridicule and ridiculous nicknames.

By August 2007, Boro fans had already had Jason Euell, Donkey Gook Lee and Aliadi-anywhere-but-the-net to, ahem, “salivate over”.

But the real "stars" of Gareth’s attacking regime were yet to arrive.

Costing more than £18 million between them, Ahmed Hossam Hussein Abdelhamid - otherwise known as "Mido" - and Afonso Alves Martins Jr. were as far apart on the striking spectrum as could be imagined.

One was from a North African country that had enjoyed, at best, moderate success on the world stage; the other was from a nation packed with star players.

One was an all-too-literal heavyweight; the other was shockingly lightweight.

And one raised an inconvenient truth; the other raised wishful thinking.

It was considered a triumph when Southgate beat off competition from both Birmingham and Sunderland to land Mido’s signature.

After failing to make their superiority count in a 2-1 home defeat to Blackburn on the opening day, and with Yakubu’s departure looking inevitable, Boro’s front line needed immediate reinforcements.

Mido seemed to fit the bill. As a footballer, he appeared to have most, if not all, of Viduka’s qualities; he could upset defences with nifty footwork, was good in the air, and could finish from anywhere, anyhow. He was also petulant and inconsistent, but, then again, so was Viduka. And he looked slim, hungry, and eager to prove a point.

Never mind that the warning signs were already there: we were the then twenty-four year old’s eighth club, his former manager Martin Jol had called him “disrespectful and irresponsible” and he had earned a reputation for being injury prone, petulant and, more often than not, overweight.

I guess that when one is so happy to have any high-profile forward at a club, one will overlook anything; including the unfortunate fact that for all his faults, Viduka was more consistent, more muscular and had more experience at the highest level.

Not that any of this bothered us after Mido’s debut.

Looking both healthy and happy as he took to the pitch against Fulham, his tame shot was fumbled into the net ten minutes into the second half, inspiring Boro to their first win of the season. On such lucky breaks do careers get fillips, and he scored again in the next match, a 2-2 home draw against Newcastle, before helping the team to a convincing home win over Birmingham. With Julio Arca, Mido, Aliadiere and Tuncay full of confidence and vitality, Boro had been given reason to believe again.

Then came West Ham, Sunderland, and injuries to all four players.

It was the beginning of a downward spiral for both Mido and Boro. The team would stop the rot by Christmas, but Mido wouldn’t. When he returned to action, he looked ineffective, and then he disappeared for months before resurfacing in the FA Cup at Mansfield looking like he’d been locked in the local Leisure Park’s Pizza Hut for ages. Mido had become Me Dough.

How I wish I was exaggerating.

A sending off at The Emirates was the most notable thing Mido had to offer for the rest of 2007-08. Had Mido’s Boro career ended there and then, I doubt most would have cared.

But when a newly slim line Mido was accidentally handed his chance as a sub near the start of 2008-09, he took it. Bursts of speed, incisive passing, deft touches, two cracking goals – and the season was only two games old!

Again, it was a false start. He scored three more goals, including an excellent free kick against West Ham, but he failed to score after early November, and was unceremoniously packed off to Wigan on loan in January 2009, with Marlon King taking his place.

Further loan spells at Ajax, West Ham and his former club Zamalek followed before he joined Zamalek permanently, then tried his luck at Barnsley.

But it was to little avail. Limited appearances and a mere seven goals following his time at Boro were hardly going to re-invent him as a dependable striking asset, and he announced his retirement last month at the premature age of thirty.

If we Boro fans get any value from Mido now, it’s likely to be from fat comic relief.

Yet, for this writer anyway, there is sadness in its midst, in that I recall how Mido set off like a greyhound in his two seasons at Boro before deteriorating, like a second hand car eventually being shown up for what it is.

He was Southgate’s failed attempt to find a Viduka clone; perhaps one can see Mido, Jake La Motta like, lamenting in front of a mirror that he “could have been a contender” at Boro.

His is a wasted career for which he really only has himself to blame.

Afonso Alves
was something else. A player who made Steve Gibson, Keith Lamb and the fans, but not necessarily Gareth Southgate, believe he was the answer to all our problems. He was “Braziliant” and he’d scored goals by the bucketload – 45 in 39 league games for Heerenveen, to be exact. I still remember noticing his seven goals against Heracles after we drew a blank in a 3-0 home defeat to Aston Villa, and wishing we could have something like that.

Be careful what you wish for.

Had Boro really done their research, that is to say, looked beyond YouTube, simple statistics and the advice of Alves’ agent – of course he was going to say his client was good! – we might not have been as ignorant of the Eredivisie successes who had failed to replicate their goal-scoring feats in other countries.

Alves was an out-and-out striker who did not have the wherewithal to re-invent himself as a workaholic, a la Dirk Kuyt or even, to an extent, Luis Suarez. He was either going to be a Ruud van Nistelrooy or a Mateja Kezman, and, considering the lack of goals from Boro as a whole – they had been described as having “the cutting edge of a puddle” by The Times on New Year’s Day – the latter looked more likely.

When Alves did sign, though, we understandably overlooked all this; as with Mido, I guess one will overlook anything when any high-profile forward arrives. Except this writer didn’t. Even though I didn’t know at the time that Southgate was forcefully smiling beside a player he later claimed he did not want, I was not fooled by the samba carnival that greeted the arrival of Alves. I felt that it was an all-too-obvious attempt to recapture the magic of Juninho’s arrival; to convince that Boro could still make marquee signings even though the awe and wonder of the Riverside Revolution had long since faded.

Like Donkey, sorry, Dong-Gook Lee, it could be argued that the arrival of Alves was a publicity stunt, an attempt to entice fans and sell shirts in Asia and South America. But we wouldn’t mind… so long as Alves succeeded where the South Korean failed.

In fairness to Alves, he had two heavy burdens on his shoulders even before he’d taken to the Riverside pitch; his price tag, and the performances of Tuncay and Aliadiere as a committed and telepathic, if hardly prolific, front two.

Dong-Gook Lee must have known that he was going to be in the shadow of Yakubu and Viduka no matter how many he scored, and that can’t have helped his confidence. The same thing happened to Alves, who appeared to develop a habit of rattling the woodwork quite a lot throughout his time at Boro.

This is where we should ask; what price Alves and Lee being branded as Boro failures if they’d had the luck Mido enjoyed on his debut?

Being substituted at half-time, despite coming quite close to scoring, in the infamous Cardiff embarrassment, appeared to aggravate things. But when both the bar and post denied him a debut goal at Stamford Bridge, you sensed something had to give.

And it did, in spectacular fashion. At the Riverside. Against, of all teams, Manchester United, with Ronaldo in his prime. One good breakaway, one defensive mistake, and Alves was in the right place at the right time to deliver two mouthwateringly clinical finishes.

Suddenly, Alves’ strengths were clear. He had good technique, he knew where the goal was, he was a dead ball specialist, and, with the right amount of service and confidence, he would prosper.

The trouble is, his weaknesses were clear too. He arrived at Boro in a time where the goal-poaching forward is a dying breed in the English game; he is the sort of player only the biggest and best teams can acclimatize.

Forwards are required to track back more and make more of an effort to win the ball nowadays, something that Mido, for all his weight and attitude problems, definitely tried to do. Some will point towards Alves’ strong end to that season, especially the hat-trick against Manchester City in that record-breaking 8-1 win. But when one watches the Boro goals again, it becomes clear that the game mostly resembles a training exercise.

The amount of space Alves has to finish in is frightening. City virtually switched off once captain Richard Dunne was off the pitch; and that happened before Boro scored their first goal. Nor can one forget the influence Fabio Rochemback had on the match; his passing and assists were just as important to the win as his stunning free kick. Knowing that he would be on his way out – as would two other key members of Boro’s midfield – can’t have helped Alves, who appeared to be forming a strong understanding with his fellow countryman.

Looking back on Alves’ well-publicized failure in 2008-09, one is tempted to place the blame on the player himself; just one league goal after October, and who could forget those horrible misses against Mogga’s West Brom or that missed sitter at Villa Park?

But, to be fair to Alves, we – and Mido – did little to aid his cause.

We dismantled an entire midfield, without replacing it. We did not let him take the penalties when Stewart Downing was low on confidence.

And Mido had undergone a renaissance – a temporary one, sure, but just enough to take the spotlight off a player who was, after all, Boro’s record signing. And when he tried to form an understanding with Mido, it wasn’t there; Boro fans missed Tuncay, and Aliadiere had been relegated to an ineffective winger’s role.

But really, Alves had proven himself to be little different from Mido in that he was a luxury to Boro; an erratic talent who could not be trusted to deliver the goods consistently.

Perhaps Boro were right when they sought out players like Mido and Alves to fill Viduka and Yakubu’s boots; it just wasn’t Mido and Alves they were right about.

(Originally published online at the Evening Gazette as two separate articles.)

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