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Middlesbrough had to dismiss the man nobody wanted to fail
IF there's one thing football supporters are extremely loath to do, it's turn on one of their former heroes. A football club's history is sacrosanct, and certain figures within it are above criticism or reproach. Once a legend, always a legend, with any future mishaps instantly forgiven because of the magnitude of what went before.
When it comes to Middlesbrough Football Club, legends don't get any bigger or more evocative than Tony Mowbray, skipper of the side that dragged themselves through the trauma of liquidation to eventually re-emerge as a top-flight force.
So when a sizeable section of the 2,000-or-so away supporters at Barnsley on Saturday began singing for Mowbray to be dismissed, an unspoken rule had been broken and a point of no return had been reached.
One of the most popular figures in the club's 137-year history had been reduced to the role of a pantomime villain. Nobody, not player, supporter, or least of all Steve Gibson, wanted it to end this way. But end this way it has, and when the Teesside tribe congregates at the Riverside on Friday for a home game with Doncaster Rovers, the over-riding emotion will not be anger, bitterness or fury, it will be disappointment.
Having waited for so long to worship one of their own, the perfect marriage has ended in divorce. And for once, the metaphor of losing a family member does not feel overblown.
Rarely can a manager have arrived at a club with such a groundswell of support behind his appointment.
The disastrous Gordon Strachan experiment had sapped much of the life out of Middlesbrough, not to mention the parachute payments that were supposed to help catapult the club back out of the Championship.
By turning to Mowbray, Gibson instantly got the supporters back onside. Almost 20,000 turned up for his first match in charge, a 2-1 home defeat to Bristol City, and while results did not immediately improve, with Boro winning just four of their first 13 matches, the early optimism endured despite a flirtation with relegation for the majority of the campaign.
The following season they were second at the turn of the year, but missed out on the play-offs by a place. Last term, a similar story ensued, with Boro third at Christmas, but eventually finishing 16th.
They won just three of their 21 Championship matches between January and the end of the season, a disastrous record that has not really improved during the current campaign.
Saturday's defeat means the Teessiders have won two of their opening 12 games, making it five wins from 33 since the start of the calendar year. With statistics as calamitous as those, it is a wonder Mowbray survived as long as he did despite boasting a deep-rooted bond with the club and a chairman who is loath to make a managerial change.
So given that he achieved considerable success at Hibernian and West Brom before failing in the somewhat unique surrounds of Celtic, why did it go so wrong for the 49-year-old back in the place he loved to call home?
His signing record is a sensible place to start, and for all that Mowbray was forced to reduce a wage bill that had spiralled out of control under Strachan and pluck players from the relative obscurity of the lower leagues or far-flung continental markets, too many of his recruits have failed to live up to their billing.
Despite playing in front of crowds that have dropped to as low as 12-13,000, Middlesbrough are not one of the Championship's paupers. Gibson has always maintained that their wage bill remains the fourth or fifth highest in the division, yet they have never consistently punched their weight under Mowbray. And the manager's constant attempts to play the poverty card are unlikely to have been well received when a club like Burnley is flying high at the top of the table.
If money was as scarce as Mowbray was suggesting, why did he sign Dean Whitehead and Jozsef Varga at the start of the summer when he already had Grant Leadbitter to play at the base of midfield? Why did he wait until the last minute to sign Kei Kamara to strengthen his attack, having spent much of August chasing a host of potential overseas signings that were never going to come off? And are the likes of Lukas Jutkiewicz, Mustapha Carayol, Emmanuel Ledesma and Faris Haroun, his signings from previous seasons, ever going to be good enough to spearhead a viable promotion challenge?
Mowbray in his playing days
In Mowbray's defence, he inherited a squad that was not fit for purpose, and which did not even come close to conforming to the template he has adhered to throughout his managerial career.
Within a week or two, he had decided he did not really want the squad Strachan had constructed – ironically, of course, he had sold plenty of them when he was at Celtic – but it took him until this summer to root out the dead wood.
Yet the side he has assembled instead appears to be a mish-mash - not robust enough to withstand the physical rigours of the Championship; not skilful enough to win games on its own terms.
Ironically, for a former centre-half, the defence has been a real problem, with the concession of soft goals a recurring theme throughout his reign.
The lack of a reliable centre-forward has been another enduring issue, and for all that Mowbray philosophises about playing the right way, it has been hard to pinpoint a discernible style from the various formations he has tried and abandoned.
He will claim this was always going to be a long-term project, and that with time, things would gradually have improved. We are almost a third of the way through the season, though, and results have remained stubbornly poor. That is why the fans begrudgingly turned, and why Gibson has felt compelled to wield the axe.
“If I had to fly to the moon, I'd take Tony Mowbray, my captain, with me,” said Bruce Rioch. Unfortunately, however, this was one mission that never really got off the ground.
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