Friday, 1 November 2013

Why Mogga Ran Out Of Luck... And Is Venus The Answer?

In many ways, Boro's 4-0 triumph over Doncaster Rovers this day last week made me sad.

It was as typical an illustration of Bipolar Boro as you could have imagined. Six days prior, Tony Mowbray's last Boro XI had crashed 3-2 at bottom of the table Barnsley and looked like a team going nowhere.

Steve Gibson took action. Local hero Mogga was on his way. Caretaker manager Mark Venus, a lifelong Boro fan himself, stepped into the hotseat.

Cue three points, a clean sheet, and four very well taken goals, all scored past Ross "I'm too big for Boro" Turnbull in front of more than 20,000 Riversiders and the Sky cameras. To paraphrase our beleaguered ex-manager, it was what it was... a handful of changes both in the dugout and on the pitch had turned unwatchable Boro into unbeatable Boro.

But is this anything new?

The parallels between Gareth Southgate's and Tony Mowbray's Boro reigns, respectively, are quite staggering. Both were legendary leaders on the pitch who were not capable of replicating their qualities in the managerial dugout.

Yet both men were really up against it from the very moment they became Boro boss. Succeeding managers who had taken tremendous management opportunities, spent Boro's money and left the club for the worse, Gate and Mogga found themselves working with more limited resources than their most recent predecessors, mainly because of the need to try and balance the books. More than that, both began their final season attempting to bounce back from wretched freefalls that neither man seemed to have the answers to.

Southgate’s final teams, however, still had that aura of "bouncebackability" about them. Their Premier League experience, to an extent, intimidated a number of opposition sides, and kept them positioned amongst the best teams in the Championship, at least for a handful of games. While the end of Mogga's tenure may have been characterised by the same lack of leadership, the same inconsistent tactics and the same unbreachable rift between manager and fans, it was also characterised by more meagre resources and a lack of truly classy players; something that even Southgate could claim to be less undermined by, as Adam Johnson repeatedly proved.

Mogga's 2011 "transformation" of Boro, which was really more about making Strachan's Bore-o an aberration and restoring the club's identity, was actually originally built on the goal scorers, leadership and solidity left over from both Southgate and Strachan. Key to Mogga's early success were the goals of Leroy Lita (a Southgate signing), the Strachan spine of Stephen McManus, Nicky Bailey, Barry Robson and Scott McDonald, and the re-invention of Andy Taylor as an attacking midfielder. Both Taylor and Lita would depart by the end of Mogga's first season, with Robson, McManus, Bailey and McDonald eventually following suit. Over time, Mogga would try, and fail, to replace them with his own spine; as key remnants of the previous regime ebbed away, with the exception of Jason Steele and Marvin Emnes, so too did the self-belief Mogga had initially restored to the club.

The local hero's two full seasons in charge followed similar patterns. To be frank, if we were to have any chance of going up in 2011-12 or 2012-13, we had to be the surprise team that upset the apple cart, that sneaked into the promotion race amidst the strongest teams in the division (see: Reading in 2012, Hull in 2013). Because neither of our squads were strong enough. In both seasons, we exhausted our luck and graft at the wrong time, and it was only a lack of draws (plus "unlucky" and "wasteful" defeats at Cardiff and Birmingham, to name but a couple), that kept our promotion pretence intact at the end of 2012. What we arguably didn't realise at the time was that Mogga was filling the squad with more potential match winners, but slowly ripping apart our dependable spine in the process.

It initially looked like Mogga had the mentality to bounce back from truly wretched setbacks (contrast the haunting late concessions against Doncaster, Leeds and Burton Albion with the spectacular if meaningless end to 2010-11). But over time, his managerial ethos regressed. Once upon a time, he had been able to take what was good about Strachan and build on it by giving youth a chance. Tony McMahon, Joe Bennett, Adam Reach, Cameron Park, Curtis Main, Luke Williams and Richard Smallwood were among the "kids" that looked like they could really prosper under Mogga. Today, both McMahon and Bennett have left the club, and the rest just haven't seemed to improve. It is possible that in his increasing desperation to appease the faithful by trying to maximise results and provide excitement, Mogga had forgotten to pay attention to players' development. That is never a good thing.

Many overly systematic coaches (especially Strachan) have been criticised for not allowing their players to optimise their strengths, but finding a system, a means by which the players can organise, inspire and complement each other, is equally important. It is not a question of being systematic; it is a question of finding the right system, one that strikes a balance between expressionism and organisation.

And Mogga failed to do so. For example, when he handed Rhys Williams the captaincy and tried to solidify him in a centre back role, was the manager restricting the player's ability, particularly when "Rolls Rhys" had evidently thrived as a midfield playmaker? Placing Williams and Jonathan Woodgate, two classy, temperamental ball-players, alongside one another was never really going to work as a dependable centre-back partnership, especially with Woodgate past his best and, like Williams, prone to injury.

The consensus that Strachan filled us with too many workmanlike, "do the job" players, making Boro about as exciting as watching paint dry, is a valid one, but towards the end of his reign Mogga was going too far in the other direction. When looking at a typical Mogga XI, you saw "artists" and "goal scorers", or, worse still, players who thought they could be artists and goal scorers. George Friend is better remembered for his goals and marauding runs rather than his defensive prowess. The likes of Marouane Zemmama, Emmanuel Ledesma, Faris Haroun, Malaury Martin have been flickering, enigmatic presences. Ditto Lukas Jutkiewicz and Marvin Emnes, unplayable on their best days but workmanlike, sulky and uninspired on their worst. At least Grant Leadbitter, Muzzy Carayol, Albert Adomah and Kei Kamara have virtually become cult heroes.

Most damning of all for Mogga, if you leave aside the mob rule that played a major part in forcing his (and Southgate's) exit, was that by his reign's end, his team did not easily pick itself. Kamara or Jutkiewicz up front? Jozsef Varga, Dean Whitehead, Jacob Butterfield or Leadbitter in midfield? Gibson, Hines, Woodgate or Rhys Williams in the centre of defence? He no longer appeared to know where this team was going or what they should be doing, and neither did we.

We needed someone new to come in, stop the rot, get the team organised and believe in themselves again; and Mark Venus appears to have done just that in his first game.

What helped Venus no end was the sentiment from those in the crowd who had gathered to pay their respects to the departed local hero; it was, after all, his team who were on the pitch. With Boro no longer pressurised by the mob or the need to save their manager, they relaxed and pulled their best performance of 2013 out of the hat. Of course, some will wonder just how different things might have been if Jutkiewicz had taken his chances against Barnsley or if Mogga had signed Daniel Ayala in time, but that's life. And football.

There's no denying Venus is a good organiser, a good coach, but is he the right manager for Boro? Being a good tactician is all very well, but you also have to be a good motivator, an inspirational figurehead; qualities that do not yet seem fully apparent in Venus. Perhaps we will see them at Blackburn, or maybe beyond, if Steve Gibson gives him a chance to be more than "the man behind the man".

Returning to Mogga, my final thoughts following his departure are loaded with regret. In many ways he appeared the ideal manager for us – a man with a vision who lived and breathed Boro.

It was only unfortunate that his vision ultimately proved misguided.

(Photos: Evening Gazette/Getty Images).

1 comment:

Gary Coyle said...

Crying shame the boro have been out of thr premier league for so long. I`ve been to the Riverside 3 times, cracking fans and excellent facilities. Hoping the next manager will be the one to take them up