THEY successfully shackled Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Kane, but were unable to contain Carlton Morris and Emil Riis-Jakobsen.

They were involved in the battle for a play-off place for the vast majority of the season, yet ended the campaign without a single striker having reached double figures.

They swapped one former Sheffield United manager for another in November, yet were unable to overhaul the Blades in the race for the top six.

Typical Boro? As the dust begins to settle on the 2021-22 season, it certainly feels that way.

The drama continued until the very last afternoon, but in truth, many of the seeds for what has played out over the course of the last nine months were sewn last summer. Cast your mind back a year or so, and Neil Warnock was trying to assemble the squad he wanted for what was always going to be his final hurrah in management.

Having watched his side finish in tenth position the previous season, he pushed for the purchase of the tried-and-tested. ‘Good lads, ready for a battle, with lengthy Championship CVs’. At the same time however, Boro’s recruitment team, led by incoming head of football Kieran Scott, wanted to start moving in a different direction. ‘Younger players with the scope for development, potentially from overseas, Championship experience not essential’.

Unsurprisingly, the two philosophies clashed, and by the time the transfer window closed at the end of August, Boro had struck upon a somewhat uneasy compromise. Warnock got some of the players he wanted – Uche Ikpeazu, Lee Peltier, Joe Lumley – but the recruitment team also got to make a few selections of their own – Martin Payero, Andraz Sporar, James Lea-Siliki.

Looking back now, it is remarkable to see just how few of those summer signings actually worked. Matt Crooks, a bargain buy from Rotherham, was the exception to the rule, but Boro’s poor recruitment last summer was ultimately the root cause of their failure to finish in the top six. The tensions it exposed would also lead to Warnock’s departure within the first three months of the season.

The campaign began at Craven Cottage, and in hindsight, Boro’s 1-1 draw with Fulham was one of their best results of the season given how dominant Marco Silva’s team would become. It also led to the unearthing of Isaiah Jones, a raw 22-year-old who had spent the second half of the previous campaign on loan at Queen of the South. Jones came off the bench against Fulham and did not look back, eventually moving from winger to wing-back to become one of Boro’s stand-out performers.

His emergence under Warnock also led to arguably the biggest decision of Boro’s season. With his frayed relationship with Djed Spence having reached breaking point, Warnock decided to allow the full-back to join Nottingham Forest on a season-long loan. Spence would go on to establish himself as one of the stars of the Championship season, but had he remained at Rockliffe Park, his career might well have gone in a different direction. Nevertheless, Spence’s stellar performances at the City Ground would go on to become a background source of aggravation throughout the campaign.

With Spence gone, Boro set about trying to establish themselves in the promotion-chasing pack, but early results proved disappointing. Late September’s defeat at Reading left the Teessiders as low as 18th, and while three successive victories over Peterborough, Barnsley and Cardiff restored them to the fringe of the play-off places, performances and results remained patchy.

Warnock will claim that injuries to Dael Fry, Anfernee Dijksteel and Marc Bola proved extremely disruptive, but after defeats to Birmingham and Luton, the 72-year-old’s reign came to an end on an emotional afternoon at the Hawthorns. He was serenaded by the travelling fans in the wake of Boro’s 1-1 draw, underlining the extent to which he remained a hugely popular figure.

The Northern Echo: Middlesbrough manager Neil Warnock alongside Ronnie Jepson and Kevin Blackwell following the Sky Bet Championship match at The Hawthorns, West Bromwich. Picture date: Saturday November 6, 2021.

Chris Wilder was appointed almost immediately as his replacement, and set about trying to reconstruct a squad and team that had become somewhat disjointed. Early results were reasonably impressive – most notably a November win over Huddersfield and a December success against Bournemouth – and by the time the year ended with Boro’s squad being ravaged by Covid – Wilder railed spectacularly when it looked as though his side would be forced to play at Bramall Lane with just nine fit players – the Teessiders were sitting in the play-off positions.

The January window was always going to be a key moment, with the need for reinforcements at both ends of the field glaringly apparent. Surprisingly, Wilder opted not to sign a goalkeeper – a move that would come back to haunt him on a number of occasions in the next four months as Lumley and Luke Daniels both struggled – but Aaron Connolly and Falorin Balogun arrived on loan to strengthen the attack. At the time, it felt as though Wilder had been forced to take the best of what was available to him, and nothing that happened during the remainder of the season dispelled that notion. Boro desperately needed a proven goalscorer in January, but were unable to get one.

As a result, while they scrapped to remain part of the play-off race in the second half of the season, they never really convinced as nailed-on promotion candidates. A 4-1 dismantling of Derby proved the ability to cut loose was there, and February’s home win over West Brom felt like a significant moment. The following weekend, however, Boro lost at Barnsley, and for every step forward, there was another step back.

There were, however, two undoubted highlights in the FA Cup, with Boro knocking out Manchester United on penalties at Old Trafford being seeing off Spurs at a raucous Riverside.

The Northern Echo: Middlesbrough's Matt Crooks scores his side's opening goal during the English FA Cup fourth round soccer match between Manchester United and Middlesbrough at Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, England, Friday, Feb. 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Jon Super).

The Manchester United win was especially enjoyable, with Matt Crooks’ equaliser in front of the Stretford End setting up a shootout that saw Boro’s players score all eight of their spot-kicks in increasingly flamboyant fashion. The Spurs win, which came courtesy of an extra-time finish from local lad Josh Coburn, was another occasion that will live long in the memory.

A quarter-final against Chelsea proved a bridge too far, and when they lost at home to Huddersfield in mid-April, it also felt as though Boro’s hopes in the league were over. Wilder’s week-long dalliance with Burnley was an unnecessary late-season distraction, with even the Boro boss himself admitting he should have handled things better as he repeatedly failed to rule out a possible move to Turf Moor. Things blew over, but for many Boro fans, the incident left a sour taste in the mouth.

Wilder’s players went into the final three games of the season needing nine points to have a realistic chance of gatecrashing the top six, and home victories over Cardiff and Stoke meant they headed to Preston on the final day with a chance of making the play-offs.

Ultimately, that chance would have disappeared whatever happened with Luton and Sheffield United both winning, but the manner of Boro’s capitulation as they lost 4-1 was nevertheless bitterly disappointing. As Wilder acknowledged, however, it merely exposed the failings that had existed all along.

Addressing those failings will be the challenge this summer, with Wilder confirming that Boro’s recruitment work is already well under way. A proven goalkeeper and two or three new strikers are a must, and unlike 12 months ago, the various parts of the club’s recruitment operation are at least now working in tandem. Hopefully, that will mean the mistakes of last summer are not repeated.




In a season of inconsistencies, Howson was Boro’s Mr Reliable at the base of midfield. He might turn 34 later this month, but he is arguably more important than ever.



The striker arrived from Brighton with a big reputation and a point to prove, but left having scored just two goals in 21 appearances.


Man United 1 Middlesbrough 1

Boro fought superbly to claim a draw at Old Trafford – then the real fun began in the penalty shootout, with the Teessiders scoring all of their spot-kicks in an 8-7 win.


Josh Coburn vs Spurs

The youngster drove into the right-hand side of the area before drilling a low strike across Hugo Lloris and into the bottom corner.