Boro not quite ready to deliver
Gareth Southgate's first season in charge of Middlesbrough was a mixed affair; not without promise but equally not without mistakes.
Despite not being in possession of the required UEFA coaching qualifications Southgate was granted permission to take charge of Boro after some hard lobbying work by the club chairman and benefactor Steve Gibson.
The season started with a breathtaking inconsistency that came to mark the club's fortunes. Boro began with 3-2 humiliation at the hands of newly-promoted Reading, but then just four days later beat reigning Premiership champions Chelsea 2-1 only to follow that with an unbelievable 4-0 beating at home to Portsmouth.
A season marked by results of this kind which ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous meant that Southgate's Boro ended the season shrouded in the cloak of mid-table mediocrity finishing, as they did, 12th.
With a third of the season left to play a higher finish looked likely as did the a European place, but dire run which included just three wins in 13 league games put paid to any such lofty ambitions.
There have been good and bad developments on the squad front for Southgate. The main negative blow has been the departure of burly Australian striker Mark Viduka to fierce local rivals Newcastle United, while the main positive remains the decision of local lad Jonathon Woodgate to turn his loan deal from Real Madrid into an official permanent move in July 2007.
While not an enormous surprise the departure of Viduka will be a detrimental blow to Boro, not least because he struck up an impressive partnership with Yakubu, who himself has been linked with several other clubs.
Former club Portsmouth are keen to lure the powerful Nigerian back to Fratton Park, and Manchester City were also in the frame. But Boro's wise decision to slap a £12million price tag on the player seemed to ward off unwanted advances.
Coming in to replace Viduka are new signings Jeremie Aliadiere and Tuncay Sanli, the signatures of which did not exactly set the pulses racing of the average Boro fan.
After seasons of trying to impress at Arsenal, which involved loan spells at Celtic, West Ham and Wolves, Aliadiere realised what many had already assumed, that he was not quite good enough to become a regular at with the Gunners.
The more promising of the two is Tuncay, who is a proven record as a goalscorer, at least in his native Turkey. He joined on a free transfer from Fenerbache where he was the club's all-time top goal scorer in European competitions.
The confirmation of Woodgate's decision to stay at Boro and sign a four year deal allows Southgate to begin to build his defence around the England man. In Woodgate Boro havea player of genuine class and who, if he can keep out of the treatment room, could still have his best years ahead of him. Unfortunately the intention of pairing him with Emanuel Pogatetz for the start of the season will have to wait a few weeks while Pogatetz undergoes an operation on his knee.
Waiting in the wings to fill in for the injured central defender will be the promising Chris Riggott and the frankly disappointing Robert Huth.
Augmenting the Boro defence, and Southgate's only other signing this summer (at the time of writing) is Luke Young. The former Charlton right back, made over 200 appearances for the Addicks and earned an England call, moved to the Riverside stadium after the two clubs agreed a fee of £2.5million.
As well as keeping hold of Yakubu, Boro's other big achievement in the close season has been retaining the services of keeper Mark Schwarzer. A talented shot-stopper, with great command of his penalty are and a superb distributor of the ball, Schwarzer is an integral part of the Boro side, but his contract runs out in the summer of 2008.
Boro had offered the Australian a new long-term deal ahead of the season but Schwarzer has yet to commit to the club beyond the end of his current contract; not least as it seems several clubs from the Bundesliga have indicated their interest in securing his services.
Given the club's lack of serious spending in the close season it seems that Boro and Southgate can be assured of another inconsistent season and one which my prove to be even more difficult than the manager's first as Boro manager as he tries to reverse the pragmatic approach of he predecessor, Steve McClaren, and replace it with a more dynamic style of football.
The attacking qualities of midfielder players like Stewart Downing, Julio Arca and Fabio Rochemback will be of vital importance if Boro are to get the best out of Yakubu, Tuncay and Aliadiere and produce the kind of attractive football Boro fans are desperate for.
Promising youngsters like Lee Cattermole and Jamer Morrison from Boro's impressive youth system bolster a decent midfield, but Southgate will be hoping that club captain and driving force George Boateng can recapture his best form and once again lead the team by example.
It is unlikely Middlesbrough will be dragged into a relegation scrap, they have too much quality, plus without the complication of a European competition to drain resources Southgate's second season should be an exciting one for Boro fans.
The season's start will be vital. If the club can get a few encouraging results confidence will flow and the club can hope to push on dream of a UEFA Cup place.
On the flipside a run of poor results early in the season and Boro will be playing catch-up and as such will not be able to play the flashing blades football Southgate has designed his side for.
In short a mid-table finishes beckons for Boro; they're too good to have to worry about going down but short on the depth necessary for troubling the big boys. Southgate should consider this another season of consolidation, but hopefully with more goals than last.