Article by Peter Swallow
Football is a game of emphatic, world altering highs, and inconsolable, desperate despair. That in essence, is why we love it. Few games are as emblematic of that notion than the Championship Playoff final, and today, Middlesbrough fell at the final hurdle. As Ian Holloway eloquently put it on BBC 5live, “Winners are losers who get back up and go again” and that is the philosophy for next season. Although it hurts, we have to dust ourselves down and go again.
What is there to say? Well, firstly, congratulations to Norwich. The worst fear before kick off was to lose the match due to a poor refereeing decision, but there is a certain degree of comfort that comes with the knowledge that, on the day, the better team won.
As for Middlesbrough, on the grandest stage of them all, we did not deliver. Norwich dominated the first 45 minutes and were deservedly in front, yet on the whole, the game was fairly evenly matched. Norwich however, had the intensity, sharpness, and clinical finishing that mattered. The two goals, 5 minutes apart, was a combination of punches so stunning, that they sent Boro crashing to the canvas. A setback the players couldn’t recover from. Although the lights were on, there was nobody home.
That will be tremendously disappointing for Steve Gibson, Aitor Karanka and the fans. After all, the season was a tremendous success, and in many ways, it deserved to have finished with a triumphant summit up the Wembley steps. In dark times however, it is important to remember where the club was just 18 months ago, on the precipice of relegation to League One, and with the future looking decidedly bleak.
The transformation then, has been nothing short of remarkable. That should be the everlasting memory of the season’s work, not the fall at the final hurdle. The town has regained its vigour and enthusiasm, while the club has found its soul again. It cannot be understated just how important an achievement that is.
After the wounds have been licked, and the bandages removed, certain developments must be made to ensure the club is able to fight for promotion again next season.
The first of which will be to find an adequate replacement for Patrick Bamford. The Championship player of the season will undoubtedly look for a season in the Premier League, be it with Chelsea or someone else. The most obvious course of action would be to once again attempt to sign Jordan Rhodes from Blackburn.
Middlesbrough agreed a deal with the Lancashire club and the player in March for a loan move to the Riverside, with the view to making the move permanent. Venkys ultimately pulled the plug at the final moment, but the signing of Rhodes would signify the club’s intent for the season to come.
Signing Jelle Vossen would also be a good piece of business for the club. The Belgian international was the standout performer in the Playoff Final and his tears at the final whistle highlighted his commitment to the team. Beyond that, he has been excellent this season after a slow start. Ensuring his return to the Riverside should be high up on the club’s list of pre-season priorities.
The most vital priority however, lies with ensuring Aitor Karanka remains in charge of the football club. He made all the right murmurings following the 2-0 defeat to Norwich, regarding his immediate future, but in the turbulent world of football, nothing is certain.
The player’s comments following the match were of a similar nature, that being, that their job is to get Middlesbrough football club back into the Premier League, and while outgoings are expected, the bulk of the team seems dedicated to the fight next season.
A word of caution however, Aitor Karanka’s contract ends after next season. As such, if the club has any desire to have Karanka as their manager for the considerable future, promotion is an absolute necessity. Few could begrudge Aitor a move to the Premier League if Middlesbrough fail to take him there.
Lastly, an ode to the fans, who are much maligned, but have ultimately been sensational all season. The highest one off home and away attendance in the Championship is testament to their commitment, as is the forty thousand fans who invaded Wembley, and the many more sat at home on Teesside.
Football is exhilarating and cruel, and there will be few fans feeling as downbeat as Middlesbrough supporters this evening. Derby are an ominous example of how easy it is to fall away having been so close the previous season.
Middlesbrough are, however, a club ran in the most immaculate of ways. Controversy rarely knocks on the door at the Riverside, and while it may seem like a disaster now, there is still much to be optimistic about for the future. All it takes is a little faith. Time to start believing again.