Middlesbrough nightmare as flops sleepwalk to Prem relegation
The excitement of a dream return to the Premier League for Middlesbrough after a seven-year absence soon turned into a nightmare, as Boro limply sleepwalked into relegation.
Rating out of 10: 3
Broadly speaking, the return of top flight football and some of the world's best players to the Riverside was a welcome sight for the Teesside faithful.
The opportunity to see their side mix it with the elite was a tantalising prospect, even if it turned sour quite quickly. In truth, Boro were never disgraced by any of the top teams -- with a 3-0 home drubbing to Liverpool and a 2-1 home defeat to Spurs standing out as the only real occasions in which they played well -- but were just competing against outfits operating on a different level.
Boro racked up a division low of five wins for the season; perhaps the two highlights would be those that came against rivals Sunderland. Even those wins won't live too long in the memory of the fans, given the circumstances. The 2-1 away win at the Stadium of Light in August was up there with Boro's best performances of the season, as Adam Forshaw, Alvaro Negredo and Cristhian Stuani conspired to ensure an uncomfortable start to life on Wearside for David Moyes.
Stuani's screamer to open the scoring saw him collect the ball midway inside the Sunderland half before driving forward and unleashing an missile beyond the despairing Vito Mannone to send the travelling fans into raptures.
Besides the obvious desolate low of relegation, the necessary departure of the previously successful Aitor Karanka was difficult. Karanka oversaw Boro's transformation from a middling Championship side into one capable of achieving promotion. But his overly defensive nature, poor man-management and rants against the upper echelons of the club's management pushed chairman Steve Gibson's famous loyalty too far.
After a disastrous January transfer window, in which key targets Robert Snodgrass, Bojan Krkic and Jese Rodriguez all put pen to paper elsewhere, things started to unravel quickly. Facing increased pressure from the fans to break free from their negative shackles and attack teams in search of vital points -- rather than settling for draws or narrow defeats that wouldn't hurt the goal difference column too badly -- a 3-1 home defeat to West Ham saw Karanka direct his ire at the Riverside faithful. It's nearly always the beginning of the end for a manager to criticise the paying crowd, and it was at that point that the tide began to turn.
A poor return of two points from a possible 15 followed before the axe was brought down on Karanka in mid-March. Not that all blame can be apportioned to the manager -- Gibson admitted this week that mistakes had been made throughout the hierarchy of the club this season -- with dire recruitment emerging as a particularly sore issue.
Ben Gibson. A breakout season for the Teessider, Gibson was ultimately rewarded with an international call-up in March for his efforts marshalling an often stoic rearguard with a maturity beyond his years.
Now commanding a transfer fee rumoured to be in the region of £30 million, the local boy looks to have a very bright future at the top levels of the game. His natural leadership and his cultured left-foot offering a natural balance to Boro's defensive shape have drawn admiring glances from many.
Gaston Ramirez. The catalyst that got Middlesbrough over the promotion line last season, it is the exploits of the Uruguayan that have left the most bitter of tastes this time around.
Ramirez started the season well, with a few assists and a stunning solo goal in a 2-0 win over Bournemouth at the Riverside in October, but he went south after having his head turned by Leicester City in January. It is easy to suspect that internal fractures appeared quite soon after this point, as the frequency and quality of Ramirez's performances fell off the wrong end of the scale.
A frankly disgraceful no-show on the pitch away at Stoke in March was the last straw for many fans, and his disappearance off the map for the final few games of the season has been welcome.
A busy summer lies ahead for Middlesbrough's now-maligned recruitment setup, as the team must find instant replacements for loanees Negredo and Victor Valdes, who will return to their parent clubs. There will also be need for a new centre-back should one of Gibson's admirers swoop in with a big-money bid.
Should Boro be able to retain the services of key players George Friend and Marten de Roon, there should be some confidence in the side being able to mount strong push toward an instant return to the Premier League.
Catherine Wilson ESPN FC's Middlesbrough blogger. You can follow her on Twitter: @Basslady