No ninth promotion yet, but Warnock isn’t finished – Interview
Thursday, 15th Apr 2021 18:32 by Clive Whittingham
Our regular Boro man James Boothby and Phil Spencer from our sister site Bonkers for Boro discuss an improved season for their team that has nevertheless fallen short of a play-off push, and Neil Warnock’s shock decision to give it ‘one more year’ in 2021/22.
How has the season been overall for Boro?
JB: Overall, I think it has been a decent season for us. At the start of the season, I think most Boro fans would have been pleased enough with fighting for the playoffs - although the drop off since January has been slightly disappointing. The key thing for us again has been a lack of goals - whoever we have put up front just does not seem to have worked for us and there has been a lack of creativity through the side.
PS: I think it depends which half of the fanbase you ask. After narrowly avoiding relegation last season the expectation this term was simply to avoid a relegation battle and consolidate our spot in mid-table. Based on that target you’d be daft to call it anything but a success. However given the wonderful first half of the season that we saw under Neil Warnock you can’t help but feel a tad disappointed. At the turn of the year we were firmly in the mix for the play-offs and all of the messages coming out of the club were that if we strengthened in January we’d be in there. We did strengthen in January, but since then things have tailed off drastically so while every fan who have taken a top ten finish at the start of the season there’s a slight feeling that we could have done much more this term.
League results so far…
Given Warnock's reputation as a promotion winner it's almost a surprise not to see you in the six, but he was starting from a low base, so has he succeeded or failed this year?
JB: I think it has still been a 'success' if you can call it that. Before Warnock came in last season we were headed for almost certain relegation. He has steadied the ship and probably had us slightly over achieving in the first half of the season with the size of the squad we had. A couple of key injuries and a drop off in form has meant the second half of season has fell a bit flat - hopefully a couple of good results in the last few games means we can head into next season with some optimism.
PS: Again, there are mixed feelings in the fanbase but my feeling is that it’s been a success. Neil Warnock has had to put in some real work on the training ground to get Middlesbrough into any sort of cohesive unit and so for that he deserves credit. You get the feeling that this season has been about figuring out who’s up to it and who isn’t, and then this summer will be pivotal in building a ‘Neil Warnock squad’ that will (hopefully) be right up there next time around.
Are you pleased he's staying for another year or would you have gone for an alternative?
JB: Most fans are pleased he is staying around for one more year, although there are some concerns about recruitment for the next season. Do we really want to spend too much money to get Warnock what he wants for one more season? Depending on who comes on after that, we could end up with another rebuild after that to get players who the new manager wants. For me, I think Warnock has earned another crack at promotion. A couple of shrewd additions (keeper, at least one striker) and I think we could be challenging for playoffs again.
PS: I’m delighted that he’s staying. While obviously his pressers are hugely entertaining I love that he wasted no time in getting stuck into the squad, bringing egos down a peg or two and building a team of players that will fight and scrap for every point. It’s been a massive learning curve for some players. Some have thrived while others have really struggled but ultimately I don’t think fans can argue that he knows what he’s doing. Warnock knows how to build a Championship team and while there’s been ups and downs I don’t think you can dispute that we’re in a better place than we were 12 months ago.
Pretty poor form coming into this one, have you basically clocked off?
JB: Yeah, I think we are pretty much on the beach now. Nothing apart from pride to play for, and a number of players out of contract/on loan who will likely not be here next season means it has gone very flat. Tiredness has probably played a part as well - a good bulk of our side have played every game this season and it is beginning to show.
Player of the year candidates?
JB: For me, Dael Fry at centre half has probably been the pick of our players this season. After a less than convincing season last year he has been superb, and has become a commanding presence at the back. The downturn in our form coincided with him missing a couple of games through injury. Paddy McNair has ran him close - he spent most of the season playing with a cigar in his mouth he made it look that easy. I think the number of games has caught up with him a bit though - even in international breaks he has playing every game for Northern Ireland so no break at all for him.
PS: Eeesh, there’s been a few candidates over the season. Anfernee Dijksteel and Marc Bola were surprise stars in the first half of the season and now look like key players after looking like they might be surplus to requirements. Former QPR man Grant Hall has also been exceptionally good after finding his form and fitness in the second half of the season. If we can get 30+ games out of him next term that’ll be a great signing. However the player of the year has to be Jonny Howson or Paddy McNair. Both players have been solid 7s or 8s out of 10 in almost every game this season and will be huge players for Neil Warnock next term.
Weak links in the team?
JB: We do have weak links though at both ends of the pitch. Bettinelli in goal has had a poor season. He has a habit of palming what look like routine saves back into the middle of the box which has cost us goals and Barnsley scored direct from a corner at the weekend. And the obvious weak link up top. Britt and Chuba Akpom have both struggled for goals, and Fletcher has missed large parts of the season injured.
PS: On current form there’s a couple. Marcus Bettinelli has been shaky at best in recent weeks and has cost us some really soft goals with silly errors and bad positioning. That’s certainly an area that QPR could exploit. Elsewhere you just have to look at our attack. While we have some decent creative players we’ve lacked a decent striker all season. Goals have been hard to come by and so if you can get on the scoresheet there’s a very good chance you’ll get a decent result.
Summer 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 >>> Patrick Roberts, 24, AM, Man City, Loan
Summer Outs >>> Aynsley Pears, 22, GK, Blackburn, £400k >>> 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 >>> Tomas Mejias, 32, GK, Din Bucharest, Loan >>> Stephen Walker, 20, AM, MK Dons, Loan
Winter Ins >>> Darnell Fisher, 26, RB, Preston, Undisclosed >>> Yannick Bolasie, 31, RW, Everton, Loan >>> Neeskens Kebano, 29, AM, Fulham, Loan >>> Jordan Archer, 27, GK, Motherwell, Free >>> Duncan Watmore, 27, CF, Sunderland, Free >>> Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, 28, RW, Cardiff, Free
Winter Outs >>> Lewis Wing, 25, CM, Rotherham, Loan >>> Stephen Walker, 20, AM, Crewe, Loan >>> Nathan Wood, 18, DF, Crewe, Loan
What needs to improve next year to turn you into promotion contenders?
JB: Overall though, I dont think too much of a rebuild is neccesary to mount another challenge next season. Maybe another body at the back, although with everyone fit it has looked pretty solid (with Grant Hall having a very decent end to the season after missing large parts injured). Will be interesting to see what happens with the wingers. Kebano and Bolasie are both on loan and whilst both have shown flashes have struggled to really make too much impact. If they do not return, will need a couple of replacements in there. And with Britt leaving when his contract is up, and Fletcher looking likely to join he we are going to need at least a couple of strikers in.
PS: I think the main improvement has to be in attack. Players such as Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher are out of contract and likely to move on. Given that they’re on massive wages and have offered fairly little I don’t think fans will be too downbeat. Middlesbrough will be looking for at least two forwards this summer, as well as a couple of wingers and probably a goalkeeper too. I’d say we’re probably four or five good signings away from having a chance at cracking the top six
Will the money be there to do that, given the situation all clubs are currently in, Steve Gibson company recording a loss this week etc...
JB: I think the feeling is Gibson will spend as much as he can get away with, but there is not a massive pot of money. Losing Britt and Fletcher will give us some wriggle room in terms of wages however. It may need a departure of Fry/Tavernier to fund any big new signings though.
PS: I think like most clubs in the EFL, funds will be a little bit tight this summer but Steve Gibson is always good at digging out funds when needed. That said, we’ll need to be smart. I can’t see us spending any sort of substantial sums on transfer fees with any paid deals likely to come from League One or League Two. What’s more likely is that we’ll be looking at the free agent market – particularly with so many players set to be available this summer. With Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher due to be out of contract it will free up a massive chunk of the wage bill. Even with the club’s intent to cut the wage bill I think that that could provide some room for manoeuvre when it comes to bringing in a few new faces.
The Twitter @jamesyboz, @loftforwords, @PhilSpenc23
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