IT is self-explanatory to state that the next nine matches will determine what happens to Middlesbrough this season. It is not over-egging things, however, to claim that results in the remainder of the current campaign will also have a huge impact on the club’s direction of travel for much of the next decade. Boro are standing at a crossroads – and we are about to see which way they turn.

Win promotion, and for all that recent results have been bitterly disappointing, it is worth remembering that Boro head into Saturday’s game with league leaders Norwich City ensconced in a play-off position and with a game in hand on almost all of their rivals, and the immediate future will be bright.

True, the current squad would almost certainly require radical surgery to be able to compete in the Premier League, but with promotion worth a minimum of £100m even if it was followed by relegation the following season, Steve Gibson would ensure there was money to spend.

In a worst-case scenario, promotion would be worth more than £200m once future parachute payments were factored in, a sum that would effectively guarantee Boro’s financial wellbeing for at least half-a-decade. Some supporters are fearful of the prospect of returning to the top-flight, having been scarred by the series of dispiriting defeats that peppered the club’s last spell in the Premier League. Be that as it may, from a financial perspective, getting out of the Championship is the only way to secure a stable future.

Miss out on promotion, and some difficult questions will require immediate answers. The identity of the manager is perhaps the most obvious, with Tony Pulis looking extremely unlikely to remain in his current position if his contract ends with Boro still in the second tier. If Pulis leaves, Gibson will have to decide which way to turn. Will he appoint another experienced manager with extensive knowledge of the Championship, even if it proves to be a short-term move? Or will he turn to a younger, less proven candidate who might be capable of establishing more of a managerial dynasty? He has tried both options in the past, with mixed results.

In many ways, the identity of the manager will be the least of Boro’s problems if they fail to make it to the Premier League though. With no more parachute payments, next season’s balance sheet would require some serious remodelling if debts were not to spiral to a level that would be unsustainable in an era of Financial Fair Play.

Boro’s most recent accounts, covering the period to June 30, 2018, revealed an annual income of £61.9m, but £41.6m of that is comprised of a parachute payment. Strip that away, as the Teessiders will have to next season, and if they are still in the Championship, their total income will fall to around £20m.

Their total costs from their most recent accounting period amounted to £51.3m, with the vast majority of that sum going on wages. The wage bill will have fallen slightly in the last 12 months, with Adama Traore, Ben Gibson, Patrick Bamford and Grant Leadbitter all having left, but Boro have also signed players in that period. As a result, their current wage commitments are likely to be significantly greater than £20m.

There will be a need to cut costs if they remain in the Championship, but as recent history proves, that is easier said than done. In an ideal world, Pulis would like to have moved on a host of high-earning players in the last two transfer windows, but there are not many second-tier teams able to shell out £15m for Britt Assombalonga and still be able to pay him more than £30,000-a-week.

Stewart Downing will leave when his current contract expires, saving Boro around £2m-a-year, but he is the only senior player who will be easy to release. Reshaping the rest of the squad will almost certainly be a major challenge.

There will have to be departures before players can be signed, and there is a very real risk Boro will have to endure the kind of lengthy fallow period that separated the spending splurge of the Gordon Strachan era and the successful rebuild eventually overseen by Aitor Karanka.

Back then, Boro effectively treaded water for the best part of five years as they got their finances in order. Miss out on promotion in the next six weeks, and it easy to envisage them having to go through a similarly painful process again. That is the scale of what is at stake in the next nine games.


AT a time when our politicians have proved incapable of providing any kind of leadership, it was heartening to see Gareth Southgate once again showcasing his statesmanlike qualities as he dealt with the fall-out from the disgraceful racial abuse that blighted England’s win in Montenegro.

Southgate condemned the monkey chanting in the strongest possible terms, but couched his comments alongside a recognition that English football cannot ignore its own problems and an acknowledgement that a middle-aged white man was probably not best qualified to be pontificating on issues of racial prejudice.

“I want my players to enjoy playing football,” said Southgate. “And to not be scarred by the experiences. If people feel I should have done more, then I can only apologise for that.”

Gareth, you don’t have anything to apologise for. And if, as looks increasingly likely, there is going to be a vacancy at 10 Downing Street soon, you’d get my vote.


THE British Horseracing Authority run horse racing in this country. Increasingly, though, they seem to be terrified of promoting the sport they preside over because of a fear of offending those who see horseracing as cruel.

It is an absolute nonsense, and could well prove a recipe for disaster as racing gears up for Grand National weekend, its moment in the sporting spotlight, but also a time when the risk of equine fatalities rises.

If the recent Cheltenham Festival is anything to go by, the BHA will be falling over itself to try to appease those who would have horseracing banned.

It is a battle it cannot win. So instead of pandering to the anti-racing lobby, the BHA would be better off promoting racing’s many strengths and qualities and revelling in the sport’s continued popularity amongst huge swathes of the population.