WHEN Middlesbrough face Derby County at Pride Park this afternoon, the atmosphere on the pitch will be intense. There is a chance, however, that the mood in the boardroom will be even more antagonistic. Steve Gibson against Mel Morris is the showdown that could really shape what happens in the Championship over the next few seasons.

To recap, the owners of Middlesbrough and Derby have been at loggerheads for more than a year. Gibson feels Morris knowingly flouted the Football League’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations when he bought Derby’s Pride Park stadium from his football club for £80m in the 2017-18 season, only to immediately lease it back. With the ground sale showing up as income on the club’s books, Derby were able to post a pre-tax profit of £14.6m that enabled them to comply with FFP rules.

Morris openly admits the sale took place, but refutes any suggestion he broke Football League rules. He claims the £80m sale price was a “fair and reasonable” valuation, and claims other clubs have entered into similar arrangements.

Having previously threatened legal action against Derby, Middlesbrough are considering launching legal action against the EFL for failing to adequately enforce their rules. While Boro missed out on a play-off position by a point last season, Derby finished a place ahead of them and reached the play-off final, only to suffer a 2-1 defeat to Aston Villa.

Clearly, the situation still rankles. The bad blood simmers, with Gibson adamant some important principles are at stake. Speaking to The Northern Echo earlier this year, the Boro chairman reaffirmed his support for FFP and his frustration at Championship clubs that attempted to bend the rules.

“The FFP rules are important for lots of reasons,” said Gibson. “They prevent clubs getting into trouble, if they’re implemented properly, they should lead to a greater degree of transparency, and they should give every team in the league a chance of competing at their level.

“I’ve made my position on it all pretty clear, and to be fair to Debbie Jevans (the EFL’s new executive chair), she’s been like a breath of fresh air. I think she gets it, and she’s trying to turn things around. Those before her were absolutely hopeless, but she’s come in and it looks like she wants to enforce the rules that are there.

“If that happens, I think we’ll all benefit. The rules are the rules, and they’re there to try to protect clubs. But the whole thing becomes a farce if clubs are able to get around them.”

Morris continues to reject suggestions of any wrongdoing, and has implied Boro are sore losers after finishing behind Derby last season.

“It’s entirely down to Steve what he does,” said Morris. “If he feels he’s got a case then he needs to pursue that, which is fine. We offered for Steve to come and take a look at our books, but he declined to take us up on that.

“At the end of the day, it’s in the rules. If the rules are there for a purpose, that’s fine. If you don’t like the rules, change them, but don’t moan.

“When Bolton were going through their troubles (last season), if the rule book had been followed then Bolton would have had their results expunged for the season.

“If it had happened, the biggest beneficiary of the clubs in contention for the top six would have been Derby and the biggest losers would have been Middlesbrough because they beat them in both legs.

“Steve is a great owner and deserves a lot of applause for what he’s done with Boro. I don’t know what’s got his goat with this, but he can always pick the phone up and talk to me.”

Or alternatively, they can chat over the prawn sandwiches in the Pride Park boardroom this afternoon.