From The Other Side - Middlesbrough
With the new football season just a couple of days away, VitalIpswich contacted our friends over at VitalBoro ahead of the opening match between Middlesbrough and Ipswich Town at the Riverside Stadium on 7th August. We discussed the big game on Saturday as well as what lies ahead for both the Blues and Boro in the upcoming Championship campaign, and they very kindly gave us their views. So, From The Other Side, here is what they had to say:
VitalIpswich: So the new season is nearly upon us - what have Boro been doing to prepare?
VitalBoro: A considerable amount on the training pitch for a start. Gordon Strachan took his squad to La Manga for a week of intensive training three weeks after the end of last season. And whilst some of the players labelled it as 'exhausting`, their actual feedback was indeed very positive and it was reported as being extremely beneficial. Strachan is known as a total fitness enthusiast and you can be sure he will drive his squad hard to get them up to maximum levels. Upon his return he then started to reassemble and replace in the aftermath of a very disappointing season last term. Six new players came in and a number went in the opposite direction. The quality of those incoming to the club soon created positive vibes amongst supporters. Short pre-season trips to Ireland and Germany followed. The level of the opposition wasn't particularly great and Boro perhaps unsurprisingly remained undefeated throughout, with two wins and a couple of draws. At that stage it was just a case of topping up fitness and creating familiarity amongst a number of new players. Maybe it would have been better to fit in a game against 'keener' and more familiar opposition, but Strachan doesn't often leave much to chance and will doubtless have fully done his research. In any case, he was left positively purring after a hard fought 2-2 draw at Union Berlin in their final game, and labelled it as a 'real' contest after a number of hefty challenges marked a decent fightback from two-goals behind midway through the first-half.
VitalIpswich: What have you made of Gordon Strachan's activity in the transfer market this summer? There seem to have been a lot of new arrivals at the Riverside recently - you're looking more and more like an SPL side all the time!
VitalBoro: Strachan is a shrewd and wily old fox. He knew exactly what he was looking for, and while it may have appeared from the outside that he simply pitched his tent up in Glasgow to see exactly what he could pick up, you can be sure that he already had a very carefully selected hit-list. Certainly he would be looking for good characters and doubtless he would be chasing 'winners' who had already done it at the top before. Celtic defender Stephen McManus was on loan at Boro for six months last season and identified as their chief target. Strachan eventually got him as his leader from the back. But it was farther forward that was really in need of serious overhaul. So midfielder Kevin Thomson soon followed from Ibrox and Charlton skipper Nicky Bailey also arrived. And then the signing of Kris Boyd appeared the true 'coup de grāce' to offer his team real threat in the opposition penalty area. But Strachan was still concerned. His squad undoubtedly lacked genuine width, and although Livingston winger Andy Halliday was recruited as 'one for the future`, the Boro boss still had serious issues. Advances were made towards Craig Conway (Dundee United) and Andrew Driver (Hearts), although as yet without any success. Therefore Strachan turned to Estonia and a little known winger named Tarmo Kink, already with more than forty international caps and still only twenty-four.
Therefore, in short, six newcomers, with probably four racing certainties amongst them, and perhaps another potential thoroughbred supported by a promising and keen-to-impress young talent in reserve. Good business so far and there could still be more to come as left-back is currently regarded as a problem area. Kyle Naughton filled it last term during a loan spell from Tottenham Hotspur and might come back. Otherwise, Strachan will just keep on searching.
VitalIpswich: Are there any players you're particularly looking forward to seeing in action? Who do you think we should be looking out for?
VitalBoro: Boyd is an obvious choice given his outstanding record north of the border, and his expected partnership with Scott McDonald will surely prove crucial. But even they are only as good as those supporting from deep. Thomson from Rangers is going to be a vital member of the side and great things are expected from Bailey, who seems exactly the kind of player you need to progress in this division. The unknown commodity will be Kink, who the vast majority of fans will probably have never even heard of. An attacking left-sided forward, his principal role will be to create, but it also sounds like he can genuinely offer something in terms of a proper goal-threat. Barry Robson will again be crucial in midfield and David Wheater should excel alongside the experience of McManus in defence.
VitalIpswich: What's the feeling amongst the fans about Strachan at the helm? Looking back, was it right for the club to install him in place of Southgate, and do you think he can bring about success now in his first full season?
VitalBoro: Personally, I actually liked Southgate. Did he do a good job? Well certainly Boro were handily placed when he was actually disposed of. Having said that you probably need to look towards his player recruitment and the money he was given to spend, and then match that up against what his successor was left to inherit. There was some seriously bad buys going on there. As for Strachan, I think that he is a trusted and knowledgeable figure who can definitely do the business. But, like at Ipswich, I'm equally certain that the natives will soon turn if the rewards don't come and another season of underachievement instead follows, particularly given the levels of optimism around at the present time.
VitalIpswich: Is promotion expected for Boro this season? Where do you think you might finish?
VitalBoro: I think it is fair to say that promotion is expected. But then it was last season too. However, Boro's squad looks considerably stronger this time around and I would think that a top three finish is certainly well within their compass.
VitalIpswich: Obviously Ipswich's fortunes have been rather well documented since media-magnet Roy Keane took over last year! What has been your perspective on the situation at Portman Road in the last 12 months?
VitalBoro: It's always difficult to judge from afar. However, I have to say that Roy Keane didn't actually come to mind as an obvious manager for Portman Road. If it was on a suitability scale and from an outsider's perspective, he would have probably featured very low on the list. Having said that he did come with credentials and relevant experience for both where you are now and hope to be in the future. I was still surprised at how appallingly you started under him. The pressure appeared to be building even within a few games and the media were already heavily speculating. Of course that was all the usual nonsense that comes when employing a 'big name'. I actually think you might end up pleasantly surprised if you stick with him. But given the way football is now, I'm not sure that will actually happen.
VitalIpswich: Do any of our current players catch your eye? If you could have any Town player at Middlesbrough, who would it be?
VitalBoro: Obvious choice, I know, but Connor Wickham. To be that good that young and he seems to be blessed with a decent physical frame too. The one question is will he continue to develop and progress? And that could totally depend on just how long he stays at Ipswich - there have been too many examples of these wondrous talents being taken early into the top-flight and then left to fester somewhere within their reserves.
VitalIpswich: Do you think Ipswich will be able to challenge for promotion this season? You need a few rivals after all...!
VitalBoro: I think it might be hard for them. However, Keane is a proven winner. It may not have looked that way given the awful start he had last season, but he's done it at this level as a manager before and no doubt can again. I believe that must count for something and that his team might actually perform a little better than some of you are thinking right now. If you really want a guess as to their final position - at this stage I'd say a very creditable tenth placing, and maybe with a little strengthening they could still challenge around the coat-tails of the play-offs.
VitalIpswich: Who else do you think might be involved in the title/promotion mixup? On the other hand, who do you see scrapping at the wrong end of the table this season?
VitalBoro: It's easy to just look at who was there before. Forest should do okay. Cardiff might suffer from their Wembley defeat and experience a slow start. If they begin well they should still be in the mix. Leeds could have been an option until losing Beckford, while Norwich will probably do alright. Of the relegated clubs, I can't see much coming from Hull or Portsmouth, and I'm not totally convinced by Burnley either. Sheffield United maybe will prosper, Leicester too. And for surprise genuine contenders, I'd nominate Reading, with perhaps Millwall as dangerous outsiders. At the bottom, Scunthorpe are again obvious contenders. Watford too, and Palace and Barnsley.
VitalIpswich: So the big kickoff between Middlesbrough and Ipswich is approaching this Saturday - pundits seem to be tipping Boro as strong favourites to win! What kind of game do you think we're in for?
VitalBoro: Bright sunshine, plenty of early expectancy, vibrant audience, great excitement - as it always is at the start of every season. But I'd expect Boro to begin with probably four new players, including a couple in midfield, and therefore from their perspective it just depends how quickly they develop a decent understanding. It could actually be a nervy and rather slow start, and I would have thought from the visitors' angle probably the best time to come up against them. I don't imagine it will be particularly open either as both teams will anxious not to make any early mistakes. Tight and tense for me.
VitalIpswich: Neck on the line - what's your score prediction?
VitalBoro: Boro 2-1.
Our thanks go to the great guys at VitalBoro for providing their views and we wish them the best of luck for the coming campaign... but hopefully not too much for the opening day!
You can also read the VitalIpswich half of 'From The Other Side' over on the VitalBoro website.