“IT’S all coming at us just now – I’m getting a lesson in Championship football,” said Gordon Strachan less than an hour after securing his first home victory as Middlesbrough manager yesterday, a fairly comfortable 3-0 win over Scunthorpe.
Experienced a manager as Strachan is, it is easy to forget that this is a whole new challenge for him. The final weeks of his reign at Coventry aside, he has not managed away from top-division football before. As a player, he captained Leeds to the Second Division championship, but that was nearly 20 years ago. No wonder, then, that his early weeks at The Riverside have been uncomfortable.
Middlesbrough have not been in a good way this season. An unconvincing start led to Gareth Southgate’s sacking in October. Strachan was seen by many, including Boro chairman Steve Gibson, as the ideal replacement.
In the five months following his departure from Celtic, Strachan had become to the Championship what Jose Mourinho has to the Premier League – a near-mystical figure capable of solving all of your club’s problems, if only you can persuade him to manage your club.
So while Mourinho has been linked with Manchester City, Liverpool and any other club with fading Champions League ambitions, Strachan was touted for every vacant Football League job from Barnsley to Notts County and back again. Boro’s capture of the Scot was considered a coup.
One win in eight games later, expectations had dropped as much as Boro’s league position. Fourth when Southgate was sacked, they had fallen to 14th by Christmas Day. And Strachan also had to deal with the increasingly baffling circumstances surrounding Sean St Ledger’s on-off transfer from Preston.
Southgate had brought in centre-back St Ledger on loan in September, locking Boro into signing him permanently for £4.5million once the transfer window opened in January. But by the time the loan deal expired just under a fortnight ago, St Ledger had changed his mind, and decided he didn’t want to go through with the deal.
Reluctantly, Strachan agreed to call the transfer off, even though Boro had already made a non-refundable £1.5m down payment on the deal. It’s the sort of cash the club can’t really afford to be chucking away.
On the pitch, Boro have been leaking too many goals and not scoring enough. Ahead of the Scunny game, they had lost three in a row without scoring. The 1-0 home defeat against Cardiff on December 13 was watched by 17,232 fans, the lowest attendance at The Riverside since it opened in 1995.
Outside forces may have had as much of an effect on attendances as the team’s form, though. The proposed closure of the Corus-owned Teesside Cast Products steel plant in nearby Redcar will see 1,700 jobs go. According to Gibson, the knock-on effect of the closure next month will put 10,000 jobs at risk. When money is tight, attending football matches becomes a luxury.
A full page of the Boro programme yesterday was given over to the club-backed ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign. “Our local politicians have betrayed our town,” Gibson said. “Why has the Government not helped when it has put so much money into our banks?”
With as much gloom off the pitch as on it, Boro could have been forgiven for wallowing in nostalgia. In the circumstances, an eight-page pull-out in the programme looking back over the Noughties was a poignant reminder of what Boro were not so long ago.
The photo-led review picked out one match from each year of the decade. They included two wins over Manchester United, two over Arsenal, one over Liverpool, another over Tottenham, an 8-1 thumping of Manchester City, the winning of the Carling Cup and a remarkable UEFA Cup semi-final triumph over Steaua Bucharest. How did a club who achieved all that manage to end up finishing the Noughties with back-to-back league games against Scunthorpe and Barnsley?
At least the Scunny game was won comfortably, albeit with help from a highly-debatable penalty decision from referee Neil Swarbrick.
With less than 10 minutes gone, Swarbrick ruled that Scunthorpe right-back Cliff Byrne had not only hauled down Jeremie Aliadiere inside the penalty area, but had committed a professional foul in doing so. The penalty award was accompanied by a red card for a furious Byrne.
It was the second major penalty controversy Scunny had fallen victim to against Boro this season. At Glanford Park back in August, Boro got two penalties – the first one harshly awarded. Goalkeeper Joe Murphy saved Adam Johnson’s first spot-kick, only to bring down the midfielder as he went for the rebound. The result? Another penalty, which Johnson scored as Boro won 2-0.
This time, Johnson converted the penalty without any need for further drama, and Boro were comfortable from that moment on.
They should have been a couple of goals up inside the first five minutes anyway, with Leroy Lita firing wide when clean through, and Isaiah Osbourne – on loan from Aston Villa – hitting the post.
And further chances came and went after that opening goal. Murphy made a hash of gathering Gary O’Neil’s long-range drive, and was lucky to see the ball stop dead behind him, rather than trickle into the net. Then the keeper denied Lita from close in, before Johnson’s 25-yard chip hit the bar.
When Australian midfielder Rhys Williams drilled in a second in the last minute of the first half, it was the least Boro deserved.
And just 41 seconds after the interval, Aliadiere’s mis-hit shot rolled in off the post to make it 3-0. It was a sweet moment for the former Arsenal striker, making his first appearance for Strachan after two months out with an ankle injury. Scunthorpe manager Nigel Adkins described the goal, accurately, as “spawny”. Strachan was still pleased, though.
“Jeremie did ever so well,” Strachan said afterwards. “He’s not had any games at all. It was his fault he played. If he hadn’t been so good in training this week, I wouldn’t have picked him. He forced me to pick him. I don’t think he realised what he was doing.”
The remainder of the afternoon was also devoid of incident, which both sides perhaps realising that the game was over, and perhaps wishing to conserve energy for the second half of the Christmas double header.
There was, though, a sting in the tail, as Lita was sent off for something nobody in the press box saw. Initially, it was reported that he had gone for foul and abusive language. Lita himself later said that he had been red-carded for an off-the-ball altercation with a Scunthorpe player. Either way, it’s a three-match ban at a time when Strachan is running out of strikers.
“It’s disappointing to lose another striker, when I’ve lost Dave Kitson to a tummy bug,” Strachan said. “I’m down to the bare bones.”
His press conference came to an end as he spotted former Boro striker Dean Windass at the back of the room, fresh from an afternoon staring into a camera and trying to get his words out for Gillette Soccer Saturday.
“I’m used to seeing you squeezed in on that big telly in your Puffa coat,” said Strachan, breaking off from discussing St Ledger’s future to focus on a bemused Windass, and breaking away from the pressures of a crumbling promotion bid. But only temporarily. The lesson in Championship football continues at Oakwell tomorrow.