THE trouble with a ‘new era’ is that it can always go one of two ways. When Jonathan Woodgate beamed his way through his first press conference as Middlesbrough head coach at Rockliffe Park in June, the club’s brave new world was laid out in front of him. A fresh start, a new emphasis on youth and front-foot football, a “golden thread’ linking all aspects of the club’s activities together.

Nine months on, and while the thread might not have been severed entirely, it is certainly looking somewhat frayed. Adrian Bevington, whose pronouncements as Boro’s head of recruitment seemed so significant at the time, has gone. Woodgate is still there, but he has had to survive calls for his head and fend off a mounting sense of disgruntlement as results and performances have flatlined. If the Championship programme resumes after the coronavirus outbreak, Boro will return to action looking like avoiding the drop. With nine games still to play though, it could yet prove a close-run thing.

This has been a season of reorientation, but not in the way that Woodgate or Steve Gibson were imagining when they laid out their vision in June. The financial reality of life without parachute payments has hit home, indeed it has been exacerbated by the continued effects of the spending spree overseen by Garry Monk in the wake of promotion. Boro are still saddled with players they cannot really afford, as well as some more recent arrivals who have contributed precious little.

Tony Pulis identified recruitment as a major issue during his time on Teesside, but it is hard to say that things have improved since the Welshman left. Indeed, if anything, the club’s transfer decisions in the last 12 months have been even more baffling.

Rewind to last summer, and the couple of months after Woodgate’s appointment was confirmed, and aside from the free signing of back-up goalkeeper Tomas Mejias, Boro’s transfer business amounted to the addition of Marcus Browne, Marc Bola and Anfernee Dijksteel, all three of whom had been playing in League One. Even at a time when money is tight, the fact that two of them were back on loan in the third tier within six months of moving to Teesside speaks volumes. The tally might well have been three had Dijksteel not picked up a long-term injury.

Without any new signings to make an impact, and with injuries biting hard in the first half of the season, Woodgate has had to accelerate his turn towards youth at a faster pace than he would probably have liked. The fact he has made such a decent fist of bringing through a new crop of youngsters should shield him from too much criticism when it comes to an assessment of this season’s results.

For all that their form has understandably begun to tail off, the fact that Aynsley Pears, Djed Spence, Hayden Coulson, Dael Fry, Marcus Tavernier and Lewis Wing have been staples of the first team throughout the season augurs well for the future. Woodgate has played a key role in their development, clearly benefiting from his prior experience of working in Boro’s academy. If the youngsters can continue progressing in the next couple of seasons, they should form a healthy core to build around.

They showed glimpses of their promise in the early weeks of the campaign, although the 3-3 draw with Luton on the opening weekend hinted at a totally-transformed playing style that never really materialised.

Early wins over Wigan and Reading kept Boro out of trouble, but a run of ten league games without a victory in the autumn plunged the Teessiders into the relegation zone and led to some difficult questions about Woodgate’s suitability for his role.

November’s 4-0 thrashing at Leeds proved a nadir, with Boro’s injury crisis meaning Woodgate had to field Stephen Walker, Ben Liddle and Tyrone O’Neill from the bench. A fillip was badly required, but few saw it coming in such spectacular fashion over Christmas.

Home wins over Stoke City and Huddersfield Town eased the pressure, before Boro’s best four days of the season saw them record back-to-back victories at West Brom and Preston. Woodgate’s side were sensational at the Hawthorns, comprehensively outplaying the then league leaders as they provided a tantalising glimpse of the kind of slick, high-press, counter-attacking style the Boro boss maintains he wants to adopt. The hope is that it will prove a template for the future rather than a freak performance.

Having beaten Preston, Boro were 11 points clear of the drop zone in the relative comfort of 16th position, but after winning at Deepdale, they went on another ten-game winless run in the league.

Once again, recruitment issues were at the fore, with the January window proving another disappointment. Patrick Roberts’ hamstring injury was unfortunate – the Manchester City youngster had shown enough to suggest he might have been a valuable asset had he remained fit – but his fellow loanees, Ravel Morrison and Lukas Nmecha, added little. Harold Moukoudi, signed on loan from St Etienne, was probably somewhere in between.

The decision to sell Darren Randolph to West Ham made financial sense, but it piled increased pressure on Pears, whose performances began to creak, culminating in the error that enabled Nottingham Forest to claim a late equaliser at the Riverside last month.

In fairness to Pears, he was not the only goalkeeper making mistakes as Mejias’ howler was a key factor in January’s FA Cup third-round defeat at Tottenham, with the replay reverse at Spurs’ sparkling new stadium following a positive display in the home game at the Riverside.

Matching Tottenham for 90 minutes on Teesside proved Boro’s players were capable of stepping up and, crucially, in the final game before the suspension of the Championship, Paddy McNair’s first-half finish secured a vital 1-0 win at fellow strugglers Charlton Athletic.

That hauled the Teessiders out of the bottom three, a development that could prove crucial if the season has to be curtailed with the current league positions remaining unaltered.

Would Woodgate have taken survival by the skin of his teeth back in June? Almost certainly not. But given everything he has had to contend with in his first nine months as a manager, it would not be too bad an outcome.

The key question for the next stage of his managerial career is whether the mistakes of the past will be repeated. With seven senior players due to be out of contract this summer, another period of significant change is imminent.

Golden thread or no golden thread, Boro have to get their next set of recruitment decisions right. Gibson recently claimed he knows where the problems lie, and Woodgate clearly still enjoys a close working relationship with his boss. Together, they need to ensure things start looking up again next season.