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Coming to terms with life without Mogga

April 21, 2014

As melodramatic as it sounds, the news of Tony Mowbray’s dismissal as Boro manager, which came six months ago tonight, felt painfully inevitable in the way the mind responds to the eventual death of a loved one who has long suffered with illness. 

For Mogga’s disciples it was both inevitable and numbing. At the time I couldn’t control my fingers to type a text message to a friend. As the defeats piled up it became a matter of when rather than if and yet the finality of it all still made the heart race. 

In the real world the grieving process goes through many phases and I’ve found coping with the loss of my ideal football manager achingly similar. 

There are lots of things I hate about football. Plenty of things I hate about my own club and team. Much of it is peripheral though and my passion for the Boro and willingness to dedicate hours of my life to the cause is underpinned by a sense that we are unique and fighting a good fight within a game dripping with evil. 

Much of that belief is invested in the club’s Teesside core and was perfectly embodied by having a homegrown manager whose name is copied and pasted throughout some of the most important chapters of MFC history. 

So when Mogga got the boot my football outlook was in disarray. 

The first stage of coping was a mixture of anger and disbelief. Thrashing Doncaster 4-0 at home felt like an out of body experience. In subsequent weeks I became detached from the club. My own sense of indifference grew with the appointment of Aitor Karanka and more detail about the involvement with the club of figures such as Peter Kenyon (I can’t begin to explain the brand of parochialism I preach any better than the Quizzical Eyebrow blog did in this piece, so it’s better that you just read that if you have the time and inclination).

I was still at The Riverside most weeks but began to find excuses to miss the odd home game. Away trips are off limits for the time being due to family circumstances but I found myself offering others the use of my season ticket because my non-match going friends were going to York for a piss up or it was my mam’s birthday. 

I cried off three games in total. That would have been unthinkable even throughout the Strachan era. When I was at the match or listening on the radio a sense of injustice continued to burn inside me for months on end. 

I would be bitter, for instance, when Karanka rammed square pegs into round holes only for it to be swept under the carpet even though Mogga had been lambasted for the same thing. 

But very slowly and not exactly that surely I think I’ve started to realise that life as a football fan must go on. 

In victory and defeat the penny has started to drop that the team in red is still the one I’ve daydreamed about since the age of six and that they’re representing our town against the world. 

It smacked me in the face when Karanka and his coaches punched the Teesside air black and blue to celebrate Lee Tomlin’s goal when nine-man Boro were under the cosh against Birmingham earlier this month. 

And the realisation kicked me in the unmentionables when I left the ground with 10 minutes left of our pathetic capitulation to Millwall on Saturday. I was more up for the game than any since Mogga left, mainly because I still apportion large slices of blame to the likes of Nicky Bailey and Scott McDonald for his downfall. 

I doubt that many others around the ground were thinking of Mogga though and as the second half whimpered out I think it dawned on me that deep down I was fuming not because of the old boss but due to the fact Middlesbrough were on the end of another embarrassing defeat. 

In some ways I’d come full circle. It’s been a long and admittedly melodramatic six months.

The morning after the 4-0 footballing wake before

October 26, 2013

I left a Boro match  early for the fourth time since the spring of 1991 last night. I’ve never made for the exit with my side 4-0 up before but last night’s game situation and atmosphere made it a unique occasion. 

So with five minutes left I was off. Partly because there’s a six-week-old baby at home and my phone was dead – blame the mass celebratory text messages thankful Dean Whitehead had been dropped for that. But mainly because Boro had bulldozed their way to a stunning win and somehow it still didn’t feel right. 

Something was missing. Someone who has this club running through his veins like many who came out on a wet night to swell a 22,000 crowd. 

It was the Spirit of Teesside match but the man who embodies that ideal stronger than any other had been disposed four days earlier. 

So for me, the carnival atmosphere was strange. 

It was like a wake. And wakes always have the potential to be enjoyable in the most unusual circumstances. Something – or more accurately someone – is being celebrated in their absence. 

That’s how it felt at The Riverside last night. Boro started like a train. They weren’t the cagey shadow boxer testing out the opposition that has enraged the chairman in recent weeks. 

It was fast flowing, bold and sweating with release. Tension was gone, the shackles were off. 

Four Boro goals scored by three Tony Mowbray signings. Richie Smallwood, a kid from Mogga’s part of the world, was excellent. A man possessed. 

There was plenty to admire on the pitch but The Riverside was “vibrant” again off it too. Steve Gibson had claimed his club was vibrant in the week. His people proved him right. 

For what seemed like 25 minutes the incredible Red Faction belted out a one song but reserved the thrust of their vocals for one line “Tony Mowbray is king”. 

At the start of the second half they had shown their Our Hero banner. Two words separated by Mogga’s face. That rugged collection of bones and skin. Teesside in a face. 

The North Stand, too, was back to its old self, bouncing up and down in unison. There will be plenty of sore throats this morning. 

There was so much happiness on show and yet it still didn’t feel right. 

Mark Venus summed it up post-match. 

“Even though I’m elated there’s obviously still a bit of sadness there, I wish the players could have put that performance on earlier…” 

It was just one win but we needed last night badly. 

More than anything we needed to show the man born to serve Middlesbrough Football Club might be gone but he would never be forgotten. 

The crowd’s tributes to Mogga last night prove he has left the club with his legend in tact. I hope he was watching and that football starts to feel normal again soon.

Football without sentiment is nothing: Why I’m devastated Mogga’s failed reign is over.

October 21, 2013

It started, not quite with a kiss, but a quote.

“This has always been my club ever since I was a little boy and my dad took me to games – I can still smell the Bovril at the back of the Holgate End.”

It didn’t take long for Tony Mowbray to remind Boro fans he was one of us. At his first press conference after being appointed three years ago this week he spoke about “giving the people their pride back” and understanding how the team could make the town tick.

I, like many others, was bowled over. Almost love sick. After the disaster of Gordon Strachan, Mogga was the parochial comfort blanket to remind us what was unique about our club. He was the core of the side that led The Boro back from the abyss of liquidation, the captain aged 22, a man’s man far beyond his years.

His reign started, in Typical Boro fashion, with a home defeat. As a man steeped in the traditions of a club with a cynical, self-depracating fanbase, he will have almost expected that.

His tenure as manager ended disastrously with an embarrassing defeat to a team anchored to the bottom of an average league with large question marks looming over many of his decisions. No one will be more distraught tonight than him.

Steve Gibson was right to give him time, to use his usual reserves of patience that must be as deep as Boulby Mine. Going for Mogga felt like his last roll of the dice. We’d tried throwing money at the league and failed.

When it become clear belts had to be tightened to the point of breathlessness, the chairman must have thought a sentimental pick as boss would bind the club together even though things were bound to get hard along the way.

Things didn’t quite go to script. After a promising start when Mogga’s team – still containing many players that didn’t fit his mould – played attractive football and quickly reestablished themselves as a force to be reckoned with at Championship level.

But two consecutive post-Christmas slumps (another MFC phenomenon Mogga would be all too familiar with) set factions of the fast-dwindling loyal ranks of fans against one another.

Last season ended with a poisonous undercurrent and the team hasn’t found it within themselves to shake the hangover and the ultimate blame for that has to lie squarely with the manager.

As last season fell apart, his decisions and interviews became more desperate.

My main criticism of him is that he overcomplicates the game. He analysed too deeply probably because he was so eager to succeed.  He boasted of possession stats in the misguided belief they would provide comfort to fans fed up of watching stuttering, nervous passing moves. Healthy ProZone figures mean nothing to fans chuntering at bus stops in Park End and in the end a dreamy vision of a “football utopia” finished up with Boro in 16th place in the Championship.

We can also get the red pen out when scrutinising many of his signings. Recently Mogga said he wasn’t interested in signing “Johnny Average” from the Premier League but it seems fair to conclude many of his buys were worse than that: Bang average players who only served to stifle the development of Boro’s own academy players.

A scatter gun approach to the transfer market saw the likes of Andre Bikey, Faris Haroun, Merouane Zemmama and Emmanuel Ledesma arrive at the club. All were or will prove to be failures and I honestly don’t know how professionals paid to be football scouts reach the conclusion such names will ever be the answer.

The jury remains out on relatively big money deals for Lukas Jutkiewicz, Albert Adomah and Kei Kamara.  Mogga has worked under financial constraints but has also squandered some of the fees and wages at his disposal.

He may have been better served by giving more opportunities to the youngsters reared at Rockliffe. In his final weeks at the helm the emergence of Ben Gibson has shown what inexperienced kids with the bit between their teeth and a burning fire in their belly can do.

Perhaps when the dust settles Mogga will feel relieved the conundrum of how to motivate spoilt, petulant, over-hyped players is no longer his to solve. The problem facing managers in the modern game is that so many players just don’t care.

But as Mogga himself said about his lack of defensive cover “why would I want to bring a 20-year old from the Premier League on loan when I have a lad bursting out of his shirt to play for the Boro?” The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether he could have heeded that advice and relied more regularly on the likes of Richie Smallwood and others from the academy.

I’m devastated it’s over and can readily accept there would have never come a point when I would have called for his head.

In the main, fans have remained patient with Mogga and his flawed team but the similarities with the end of Gareth Southgate’s spell as boss are clear. Odd wins weren’t enough to save Southgate and they wouldn’t have stacked up for Mogga either. Too many minds were made up and the pressure cooker of tension would have blown off sooner rather than later.

So where do we go from here? I shudder to think. But a manager (probably a deadbeat who applies for every vacancy) with no emotional attachment to the Boro will soon be greyed by the pressures of managing a skint club in front of fans with unrealistic expectations.

He’ll have the same players and same jittery Riverside crowd containing more and more fans desperate for their club’s five minutes of Sky Sports News yellow tickertape fame. How long before the next “Boss out” campaign?

What direction will the club take? What the hell is Peter Kenyon doing at our games? It has me waking up in a cold sweat nightmare.

In contrast, for those who associate football with identity, belonging and pride, Mogga was a dream. What comes next could be a lot worse. Still, “it’s a results business” apparently, and many supporters can now celebrate the end game they have long wanted.

In the end, the rest of us probably allowed our hearts to rule our heads. But in a game now heartbreakingly devoid of soul, where owners change team names, the colour of shirts and fans cheer players to the rafters who have previously refused to play, surely we can be excused that?

There’s no place for sentiment in football, so goes the argument. For me, the game is nothing without it.

How could you be angry after that? Boro 1-1 The Owls

August 31, 2013

How could you be angry with them after that? Boro collectively crept off at full time like a kid nervous in the knowledge they had been naughty and yet confident enough to know their smile could guarantee they would escape a serious bollocking. 

It will read 1-1 in tomorrow’s papers but blood and thunder was the true story as South Yorkshire and Auld North Yorkshire clashed in a game that was all glancing elbows and mistimed studs. 

Most of the blood on show belonged to Lukas Jutkiewicz, who again split his time between acting as Boro’s battering ram and meekly complaining to the referee about fouls that just didn’t exist. His shot that jumped back off the crossbar was typical of a regular Boro afternoon: so near, yet so far. 

Sheffield Wednesday took the lead when we wilted under the pressure of consecutive corners and although the first half was in no way a disgrace, conceding was possibly the best thing that could have happened to Boro. 

After the break we were forced to be a smidgen braver on the ball, more expansive, more willing to miss a man out and stretch the play. Muzzy Carayol’s goal after determined work from Jutkiewicz should have been the signal for Boro to wrap up the game. 

Because without meaning to patronise the Owls, they had limited ambitions and were satisfied enough to try and waste time with plenty still left on the clock. 

The only real advantage they could claim, in fact, were the numbers with which they managed to swell Dave Jones’ technical area. Their backroom staff seems to rival that of the England cricket team. 

To be fair, Wednesday’s fans also deserve credit for their numbers and noise which made the afternoon at least feel like an occasion. Without the visitors the Riverside attendance would have again been pitiful and the lack of a crowd should be causing splitting headaches at boardoom level. 

The previous 1-1 draw with Blackpool drew the lowest Saturday league crowd at the Riverside and today’s gate would have challenged that unwanted record all too soon.

In the period between the stalemate with Blackpool and this afternoon’s deadlock we’re told Tony Mowbray and Neil Bausor have been working to tie down deals that would put bums on seats. 

With only 48 hours to go before the transfer window closes we can only hope all Boro’s eggs weren’t in a basket labelled Ross McCormack. 

During the second half Boro played tidy football, finding and using space but failing to apply the finishing touch. That failure to kill off opposition like Wednesday will in the long term ensure they remain among the litter of the Championship. 

There was a lot more evidence that a midfield trio of Grant Leadbitter, Jozsef Varga and Dean Whitehead won’t be inventive enough when the emphasis is on Boro to force the issue at home. 

Again Boro looked more unpredictable and therefore difficult to defend against once Marvin Emnes had entered the fray. Perhaps that particular switch could have happened at half time in an attempt to boss the match. 

Afterwards folk seemed to be largely positive. “That was all right,” they said. “It was decent enough.” 

It was decent enough. And I don’t think we should be angry, but the fact remains that one long 1-1 won’t be enough.

Boro remain desperate for a star of the big screen (Boro 1-1 Blackpool)

August 19, 2013

At half-time the man with the mic announced that first-half highlights would be shown on the big screen and everyone in earshot started laughing.

Save for a couple of electric Muzzy Carayol runs into the box, Boro and Blackpool simply struggled through a typically Championship 45 minutes. The game did open up ever so slightly in the second half but remained resolutely drab until the visitors bagged a scruffy opener ahead of Marvin Emnes’ equaliser in the last minute of injury time.

Afterwards the unanimous reaction was that Boro had deserved a point. Nils each, in fact, would have been fair enough.

If the Leicester defeat reinforced what we already knew about Boro’s deficiencies, the draw with Blackpool gave some misty pointers towards the future direction.

On the flanks Carayol – who frustratingly barely ever seems to be in control of the ball – and Albert Adomah will give opposition defences plenty to worry about.

Against the Tangerines Boro seemed to concentrate on one side of the pitch at a time, peppering the ball towards either Carayol or Adomah while the other wideman was left menacing in space just a well-hit switch away.

Boro will need to get legs into the penalty area much quicker to make proper use of the boys with chalk on their boots. At least half a dozen times either Carayol or Adomah got in promising positions only to look up to find they didn’t have much, if anything, to aim for along the deck or in the air.

After the break – and those brief highlights – Adomah showed glimpses of his quality. He pinged the ball, both from standing positions and while hurtling towards the byline, into dangerous gaps between defenders. Long term he could have us licking our lips and help Carayol (as well as Emmanual Ledesma and Adam Reach) graduate from his raw potential.

But the worry remains that Adomah and Co will only flourish if Boro’s midfield shape allows bodies to pile towards the edge of the box in support of attacks and a genuine finisher signs on the dotted line before September 2nd.

Lukas Jutkiewicz put in a lot of hard graft but again failed to properly impose himself on the game. He has a role to play and would be one of the first names on my team sheet with the right foil alongside him. He contributes without being clinical and Boro’s attacking play took on a new dimension once Emnes came on to buzz around the edge of the Blackpool box.

The sarcastic laughter that accompanied the highlights announcement was only just louder than the collective “oh bugger” in the pub as Ross McCormack scored his terrific goal for Leeds.

That finish, coupled with the regular comments emanating from Elland Road, suggests it won’t be McCormack teaming up with Adomah, Carayol and Jutkiewicz to convert Boro from nearly men into bona fide play-off contenders.

Because for all the gallows humour and cries of woe about the “same old story” Boro aren’t far away.

The right striker nodding or slotting home deliveries from right and left would even make those big screen highlights worth hanging around for.

Boro 1 – 2 Leicester: A blast from the past

August 4, 2013

I would say stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before but you would have to stop me and it would be the end of the blog. 

Leaving the Riverside after Boro’s opening day defeat to Leicester I must have heard a dozen people dejectedly say “it was just like last season”. The first day didn’t teach us anything, it just painfully reinforced what we already knew. 

A slice of nice patient build-up play: tick. Wasteful in front of goal: tick. The game ending with hurried hit and hope: tick. 

We all know Boro are three or four players short. The manager knows that and has said so. The chairman, back in his seat a good five minutes before the second half kicked off yesterday, knows it too. 

Of the 11 that started yesterday there were a few positives worth mulling over. Marvin Emnes wanting the ball was probably the main one. Simple, perhaps, but last season he hid too often. Against the Foxes he was busy, dropping deep and drifting wide, playing fast one-twos and gliding well with the ball. 

Dean Whitehead popped up in the right places, making blocks and harrying. He is a touch slower than I remembered which could be a problem if Tony Mowbray persists with the same shape. 

The midfield started brightly with Whitehead, Grant Leadbitter and Jozsef Varga all buzzing around the edge of Leicester’s box. 

After the break it reverted to the mono-minded mess we witnessed for much of the last campaign. We need a different kind of string puller to get on the ball and make things happen. They don’t grow on trees though so the shape may have to be refined to ensure Boro can hurt teams more. 

Leicester’s second half performance was a brutal reminder of Boro’s deficiencies. From somewhere they found an extra gear, a burst of energy that we couldn’t match. GPS monitoring and “inspirational” messages on the walls of Rockliffe Park is fine but Boro need to be able to put their foot to the floor in games and get out of the slow lane far more often. 

To make serious progress in this division the team needs a focal point. The jury is still considering its verdict on Lukas Jutkiewicz and could be doing so for some time yet. 

Yesterday was a microcosm of his Boro career to date. In one breath he looked busy, almost leading the line and he could have claimed the goal (I had him on a coupon). 

In the next he was showing everyone how hurt he was after what could hardly be described as a clash with football’s unlikeliest hardman, Sean St Ledger. 

Jutkiewicz strikes me as a complacent footballer. He looks too satisfied with a cute spin and pass when he should be concentrating on breaking his neck to get on the shoulder of the last defender and looking to finish moves off. There is a player in there, a solid mid-table Championship striker no doubt. Whether we can coax more out of him than that is anyone’s guess as it stands. 

Along with the lack of a focal point at the front, there were times when Boro’s lack of pace at the back was exposed. Jonathan Woodgate and Rhys Williams are cut from the same cloth. They are continental strolling centre backs. Defenders who are comfortable with the ball. Unfortunately they both have the habit of being left trailing – a leg flailing as pathetic as a drunk trying but failing to hail a taxi on Southfield Road – as a nippier opponent darts towards our goal. Both would benefit of a partner in the mould of Tony Mowbray or Nigel Pearson. 

Pearson’s half-time team talk defined the game. Last season’s corresponding fixture finished Boro 1-2 Leciester. The visitors came from behind that afternoon too. The opening day was one long blast from the past. 

*** 

Off the pitch there was a lot to like about the revamped Riverside. The family enclosure looked packed and the club ought to be applauded for its efforts in securing the next generation of cynical Boro fans. 

Red Faction had obviously been busy over the summer. Their three huge banners draped at the front of the ‘Boys End’ looked great. They made a good racket at times and that end of the ground will get more popular. 

After the game we had a wander round to the Twe12th Man fans’ bar in the concourse of the North Stand. It was rammed. Cheap pints for those that had already redeemed their free drinks, tables to rest them on and a great playlist of music selected by fans. 

Hopefully the post-match hangout will go from strength to strength and we’ll have some wins to pick the bones out of soon.

How to survive what’s somehow already written off as a season of doom

July 31, 2013

The prevailing mood out there seems to be DOOM. I can’t remember a more low-key build up to a season. I know a lot of people are terrified but somehow we’re just going to have to survive it. Here are five tips that may help. 

1. Try and enjoy it

An alien concept to Boro fans, granted. But going to the match is actually supposed to be fun. A release from the pressures and strains of everyday life. Far too many people seem to be waiting for the season to start just so they can see us fail.

If you’re anything like me, football is still the game you played in the garden with your dad. It’s still that game you daydream about all shift at work.

So how about remembering that going to the match can be full of joy, sometimes even in defeat?

The swift jars, the same old banter with mates and worn-out tunes from the busker in the underpass. They’re all a given, regardless of whether Marvin Emnes decides to have one of his on days. Savour them.

2. Sup your free pints

Those free pints! From Sir Steve! They’re new, they’re different and I’m going to make sure I enjoy all 23 of them. No doubt others will find various things about the concept to complain about. It’s a free pint, man. Free pints taste good whether you finish 1st or 14th. Which brings me to…

3. Not making a prediction

I have absolutely no idea how Boro will fare this season. Our fifth year in the Championship seems as good a point as any to stop assuming we’ll be at least in the playoff mix. But even if you think we’ll go down, keep it to yourself, because then you won’t be embarrassed or find yourself pining for a slump if we start OK.

4. Don’t suddenly pick Millwall as your second team

I can see the conga lines forming already. Dancing their way to a foam party themed rave of an orgy every time Scott McDonald scores a tap in with his arse. Just don’t bother. I’m cringing already.

5. Hide when we lose 

This season I’ve made a pact with myself. In order to make sure I can stay true to tip 1, I’m going to conform resolutely with tips 2, 3 and 4, but 5 could be the most crucial. 

This time around there’s going to be no Twitter combat for me after defeats, no suicide sessions with the phone ins and definitely no Fly Me To The Moon messageboard. It’s just not worth it. 

I was thinking earlier about how simple going to the match was before I felt I had to race to tweet, read threads of gloom and listen to complete morons on the radio after a disappointing but hardly life-threatening goalless draw.

Now you might all think I’m a bit weird, but this year I just hope Boro win. I hope a few angry people out there might join me.