The thirteenth annual Neil Warnock farewell tour - Interview
Friday, 25th Sep 2020 10:05 by Clive Whittingham
Our regular Boro man James Boothby and Phil Spencer from our sister site Bonkers for Boro run the rule over our Saturday opponents Middlesbrough.
How was last season?
JB: Last season was a bit of a disaster really. The Woodgate gamble backfired spectacularly and for a while relegation looked a very distinct reality. Warnock came in and we definitely improved, although very hit and miss and without some players after not extending contracts. I do think the squad is better than the league position suggests, but they just did not perform for whatever reason and at the end of the day the league table does not lie (despite what Woodgate claimed..)
PS: A bit of a disaster, to be honest. After fans criticised the tactics of ‘dinosaur’ Tony Pulis the fresh face and approach of Jonathan Woodgate looked set to get pulses racing. Unfortunately it was more nerve-induced palpitations rather than free-flowing attack-minded football. Middlesbrough were naïve in approach and far too easy to beat, and that put us on the cusp of relegation as we went into lockdown. Neil Warnock’s appointment was timely and good old Warny did his thing as he kept us in the league. If you’d told me we’d be celebrating survival in August I’d have laughed in your face, but it’s amazing how far standards can drop in 12 months.
Warnock obviously did what he came in to do last season but what do you think of him staying on for a full season where presumably the aims are very different?
JB: Everyone was pleased to see Warnock stay I think, he did fairly well under a strange end to the season and I think he will be able to manage the squad much better. Warnock has been making plenty of noises about looking up the league, but with the current squad I think any talk of promotion is wide of the mark. He will fancy himself to do it no doubt, but would need massive improvement from current squad and some new faces to contend.
PS: I am delighted that Neil Warnock is staying on. After the disaster that was last season we need a manager to give the first team squad a rocket up the behind and give the board a frank assessment of things. So far, it seems that he’s done both. No one is expecting him to stick around for longer than a season but given the fact we’re at the start of a long rebuilding job we need his experience to start the process of building a team for the future, while crucially getting results to keep us away from trouble.
Heard the summer transfer business has been quite slow, what deals have been done and what do you make of it?
JB: Grant Hall (a man you will know well) is the only incoming so far - but he seems tick the boxes we needed at CB. We badly needed some leadership in the side which it sounds like he will provide. A number of outgoings, with the likes of Ayala, Shotton, Clayton and perhaps most surprisingly George Friend all leaving. We badly need numbers in before the deadline, with two strikers, a midfield and probably a GK most likely to come in. We have missed out on a number of targets so far though, although Warnock seems relaxed that he will get what he needs.
PS: After losing five or six key first team players at the end of their contracts it seemed that it would be a summer of wholesale change. However that hasn’t quite happened yet. Grant Hall, Marcus Bettinelli, Sam Morsy and most recently, Chuba Akpom have joined the club and seem like solid enough additions given the cost-cutting measures in place. I’d imagine that Middlesbrough will still want three or four new players though because we’re still extremely thin. A centre back, a winger, a number ten and another centre forward would set us up nicely.
Ins >>> Chuba Akpom, 24, CF, PAOK, £2.4m >>> Sam Morsy 29, CM, Wigan, Undisclosed >>> Grant Hall, 28, CB, QPR, Free >>> Marcus Bettinelli, 28, GK, Fulham, Loan
Outs >>> George Friend, 32, LB, Birmingham, Free >>> Adam Clayton, 31, CM, Birmingham, Free >>> Daniel Ayala, 29, CB, Blackburn, Free >>> Ryan Shotton, 31, CB, Released >>> Rudy Gestede, 31, CF, Released
Where is the squad strong and weak?
JB: The team is OK. Fletcher and Assombalonga up top seemed to click towards the end of last season and have done well in the limited pre season. Tavernier in midfield has looked sharp and Djed Spence impressed in his debut season. Once you get passed the first 14/15 we look weaker though, and we need some creativity in midfield and out wide. I would be hoping for a fairly stable mid table finish. Whilst the Premier League money has gone, we have got a number of big earners off the wage bill and the feeling is there is money to spend. We are definitely being more careful with it though, which is no bad thing after the mistakes in the Monk era.
PS: Being brutally honest, I don’t feel like we’re particularly strong anywhere. We’re pretty well kitted out in central midfield with solid, yet unspectacular players but we do lack creativity from that area of the pitch. Attack is another area where we have decent quality with Britt Assombalonga, Ashley Fletcher and Chuba Akpom, but with limited service it’s hard to get the best from them. In terms of weaknesses I’d have to it’s our defence. We really lack a commanding presence at the back and that is a concern when we face up to a side with a decent attack.
JB: I would be hoping for a fairly stable mid table finish. Whilst the Premier League money has gone, we have got a number of big earners off the wage bill and the feeling is there is money to spend. We are definitely being more careful with it though, which is no bad thing after the mistakes in the Monk era.
PS: I think this season will be a bit of a slog, to be honest. With a thin squad and plenty of new faces (hopefully)coming in, it’s going to be a season of consolidation for us. Some have tipped us as dark horses for the play-offs, but I simply can’t see it as there’s so much quality in the Championship now. Neil Warnock will definitely improve things but the best we can realistically hope for this season will be a top half finish. In truth, I think we’ll be looking mid-table. Parachute payments ran out at the end of last season and that’s been the key reason for the current project of ‘cutting our cloth’. The likes of Dani Ayala, George Friend, Adam Clayton, Rudy Gestede were all on Premier League wages and left because we simply couldn’t match their demands. Most of the high-earners are now gone, so this season is about building the squad back up again in a somewhat sustainable way. The reality is that Middlesbrough are probably where QPR were about two years ago, and so it’s going to be a relatively long road back to the role of promotion contenders.
League results so far…
How've you played in the games so far?
JB: We have played OK in the two league games to be honest. We have a better shape about us than last season, and against Bournemouth I thought we looked the better side for long periods. We have still struggled to create too many clear cut chances though which is still a concern.
PS: Excluding a Carabao Cup disaster against Barnsley, we’ve looked alright so far. That said, our two Championship games have been against Watford and Bournemouth where we’ve been clear underdogs. In both games we’ve showed signs of promise, and against the Cherries we probably deserved to win on the balance of play. Saturday’s clash with QPR will be a real acid test as it’ll be a first real indicator of how we stack up against a mid-table Championship side. Win the match and supporters will be optimistic for the season ahead, lose it and I think fans will be bracing themselves for a long, hard season.
Positives and weak links?
JB: Defending from set pieces is still a big weakness for us. Both goals conceded in the league so far have come from corners and the manager will be tearing his hair out at that. And we need to improve our final ball - I think we played 31 crosses into the box against Bournemouth but only got on the end of a handful of them. Overall we have looked OK though, and signs that we should have a better season than last year.
PS: Neil Warnock has clearly got a set system in mind for Middlesbrough with us setting up in a 3-5-2 formation. It’s far from fine-tuned just yet, but there’s been signs of promise as the players get used to the system. Paddy McNair and Anfernee Dijksteel aren’t natural centre-backs but both have looked good alongside Grant Hall so far. It’ll be interesting to see how that continues. Elsewhere it’s all been a little bit ‘meh’ in our performances. Marcus Bettinelli has had a shaky start to life at Middlesbrough after conceding three goals at his near post, while the lack of creativity from midfield as been a bit alarming. Our performances have suggested that we definitely need to sign players who are suited to Neil Warnock’s system, as so far it’s all been a little bit disjointed.
Grant Hall first impressions?
JB: Hall has done OK, no better and no worse so far. Has defended OK for the most part but been caught out a couple of times. Could have also had a couple of goals himself from corners and will be disappointed not to have been on the scoresheet.
PS: I had the luxury of watching Grant Hall a lot during my time covering QPR so I knew what Middlesbrough were getting. In fairness to him, he’s only played two matches but it’s been a steady enough start. Often used as the central man in a back three, it’s clear that the aim is to flank him with more mobile defenders so that he can keep his game relatively simple. I don’t think his signing will be ground-breaking by any means, but given the lack of decent options at the back he’ll certainly be a regular starter this season.
The Twitter @jamesyboz, @loftforwords, @PhilSpenc23
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