At times this season it felt as though Middlesbrough were going to be genuine relegation candidates in the Championship, but a strong festive period has seen them start to pull clear of the bottom three. What have you made of what you’ve seen so far as we enter the final third of the campaign?
It wasn’t quite half the season but for a long time it was a real slog. And then something clicked just before Christmas. We’d seen signs of it along the way but around that festive period, they just found their feet and it happened at a time when they’d been missing all sorts of players through injury and the squad was really stretched. People like Jonny Howson and Paddy McNair have been playing at centre-back, for example, and have done brilliantly. It was almost as if all the work they’d done just clicked into place; everybody just got it, they played really well and got some really good results. They aren’t playing badly now, but since they won away at Preston on New Year’s Day, they’ve not got the same rewards they got over Christmas and I think a win would get them back on track again.
It’s clear that Steve Gibson backed his decision to employ Jonathan Woodgate as Tony Pulis’ successor – do you think he envisaged there might be this transitional period where the season hasn’t followed the same path as previous years?
Oh yes, I think it was always the case. From within the club, it was always expected to be a season of change. I don’t think anyone expected them to struggle in the way that they did initially and he could well have been sacked by another chairman, but where they are now and the path they appear to be on it pretty much what would have been expected at this stage. Mid-table, having a flirt with the play-offs if things go really well but it was never a season where anybody expected them to be right up there banging on the door of promotion.
With their survival hopes now picking up pace by the week, do you think the five signings he made in the January transfer window have the capability to give that extra lift?
You’d imagine so, but one of the big blows is that Patrick Roberts only played a few games before a hamstring injury ruled him out for a couple of months. He looked really bright and was one of the big things they’d been missing, a player like him at the top end of the pitch, so that’s why Woodgate brought in Ravel Morrison right at the end, though it came out of nowhere. Lukas Nmecha, another player they signed on loan from Man City has looked bright up front and though we haven’t seen Harold Moukoudi play since his move from Saint-Étienne, they needed more defenders. It’s certainly a stronger squad. It’s a better squad than he had coming into January, so assuming enough of them come off, I think they’ll be fine. Concerns have definitely eased.
If the season was to end today, who would you name as your Player of the Season?
Jonny Howson, easy. Paddy McNair was brilliant for the first half of the season but Howson has just been outstanding. He’s like Franco Baresi at the back. You can put him anywhere and he’ll never let you down, but he’s better than that. He’s been absolutely outstanding playing at the back against whoever they’ve played, including the initial tie against Spurs in the FA Cup third round, though he had his pocket picked in the replay. He’s top of the class, for me.
How is Woodgate likely to set up his side this Saturday, for Boro’s final visit to Griffin Park?
It would be a surprise if it was anything other than a three-man central defence and wing-backs, because that’s how he’s been doing it for a good while now. He’s not afraid of changing it and, as the occasion demands, he has done throughout the season, but that appears to be the formation he’s settled on as it suits his players best. Three centre-backs, wing-backs, three in midfield supporting a couple up top.
Though the Bees finally got their long-awaited away win last year, Middlesbrough have won four of the last five meetings in west London. What’s your score prediction for this one?
I genuinely don’t know how this one will go! Obviously Brentford are going very, very well and score lots of goals, but I do have a feeling this might be quite tight, so I think maybe 1-1.
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