IT was the best of times, it was the worst of times. For Middlesbrough, the story of the 2022-23 season really was a tale of two managers.

Languishing in the bottom three in early October, when Chris Wilder’s tenure came to an inglorious end, the Teessiders were completely reborn under Michael Carrick to the point where promotion back to the Premier League began to feel like an inevitability rather than an aspiration.

Missing out in the play-offs was a bitter disappointment, with Boro’s flat display in last week’s decisive semi-final second leg completely out of keeping with the vast majority of their performances under Carrick. Ultimately, though, it is important to remember just how far the club has come since the dark days of the autumn when a spell in League One felt like a distinct possibility. Carrick has established strong foundations; the challenge now is to build on them to ensure Boro do not fall short again in 12 months’ time.

At least they will be strengthening from a position of unity this time around, a situation that was not the case last summer, when the seeds of the subsequent poor start to the season were sown.

Wilder never really suited the structure Boro were attempting to build, with head of football Kieran Scott overseeing a recruitment operation working at arm’s length from the coaching team and pursuing a different type of target than had been the case under previous regimes, and the tensions were all-too-evident by the time the campaign began last July.

Boro wanted to pursue young, hungry forwards who could be developed within the first-team squad; Wilder urged those above him to sign a 34-year-old David McGoldrick. Scott pushed hard to land Marcus Forss and Matthew Hoppe; Wilder dismissively branded the pair ‘development players’. Wilder threw a number of fringe players under the bus during pre-season; come August he was having to turn to them because replacements had proved impossible to source.

The situation was a mess, although it serendipitously led to one of the decisions that would have a huge impact on the way Boro’s season would play out. Had the Teessiders signed another striker in the final two weeks of pre-season, Chuba Akpom would have been sold.

The Northern Echo: Chuba Akpom celebrates after scoring against Hull CityChuba Akpom celebrates after scoring against Hull City (Image: Tom Banks)

As it was, with numbers at a premium, Wilder had to restore the out-of-favour forward to his squad for the final pre-season game against Marseille even though he had not been part of the group that had travelled to Portugal earlier in the month. Akpom would go on to start the opening game of the season against West Brom; nine months later, he would finish the campaign as the Championship’s leading scorer.

Even with Akpom in the side, however, the season began poorly. A failure to win any of the opening five matches left Boro in the relegation zone, and while wins over Swansea City and Sunderland stemmed the bleeding somewhat, the writing was on the wall for Wilder by the time his side lost at Coventry at the start of October.

The Northern Echo: Former Middlesbrough boss Chris WilderFormer Middlesbrough boss Chris Wilder

He was dismissed in the wake of the defeat at the CBS Arena, sparking a three-and-a-half week search for his successor that saw Leo Percovich holding the fort as the recruitment process initially stalled.

Percovich is something of a forgotten man now, but he deserves huge credit for holding things together during an extremely testing spell. A home win over Birmingham and away thrashing of Wigan gave Steve Gibson and Neil Bausor some breathing space as they pursued Carrick, and alongside academy boss Craig Liddle, Percovich made a couple of selection decisions that would have major repercussions once he moved on. The decision to install Tommy Smith at right-back solidified a defence that had been wide open under Wilder, while the promotion of the previously-unheralded Hayden Hackney to the starting line-up proved a masterstroke. Hackney, who had spent much of the previous season on loan at Scunthorpe United, went on to become one of the stars of the season.

Carrick’s appointment was eventually confirmed in late October, and while his first game as head coach might not have gone to plan, with the concession of a late goal resulting in a 2-1 defeat at Preston, it did not take long for the former England international to turn things around.


The speed of the recovery under Carrick was remarkable. Boro won seven of their next nine matches after that initial defeat at Deepdale, and had climbed into the play-off positions by the time they won at Blackburn in their final game of 2022.

What changed under the former England international, who was clearly revelling in his first full-time managerial position? The mood within the camp, for a start, with Carrick’s decision to appoint former Boro boss Jonathan Woodgate as one of his two senior coaches an early masterstroke. Woodgate knew the senior figures within the dressing room intimately, and was key to getting them onside. He was also able to build a bridge between Carrick and both Scott, as head of football, and Boro owner Steve Gibson, ensuring that the tensions that had build under Wilder were immediately smoothed. After difficulties under both Wilder and his predecessor, Neil Warnock, Boro was once again a club pulling in a unified direction.

Carrick was also presiding over a team with a match-winning ‘number ten’ thanks to the tactical switch that was the key to transforming fortunes on the pitch in the early months of his tenure. The Boro boss saw something in Akpom in his first few days at Rockliffe Park to persuade him that the forward was being wasted as a conventional ‘number nine’, but even he cannot have envisaged what would happen next. After finding the net in Carrick’s first game in charge, Akpom embarked on a run that saw him score 23 goals in 26 league matches. He finished the season as the Championship’s leading scorer, with his goals spearheading Boro’s promotion push.

It helped that, come January, he found himself playing off the shoulder of Cameron Archer. Boro signed both Archer and Aaron Ramsey on loan from Aston Villa at the turn of the year, and the pair performed superbly in the second half of the campaign.

There were so many memorable highlights as Boro swept aside allcomers during the spring – the home thrashings of Reading and Preston, the away triumphs at Cardiff and Swansea – but the best performance of the season surely came at Bramall Lane in mid-February when Archer’s double helped secure a 3-1 win over second-placed Sheffield United.

The Northern Echo: Cameron Archer scores against Sheffield UnitedCameron Archer scores against Sheffield United (Image: Tom Banks)

At that stage, with Boro sitting in third and Sheffield United suffering a wobble, an automatic-promotion place looked a real possibility. To their credit, the Blades successfully steadied the ship, and Boro’s hopes of a top-two finish effectively disappeared when their former boss, Warnock, did a number on them as they lost 4-2 at Huddersfield.

April’s 3-1 win over Hull City confirmed a play-off spot, meaning Boro had nothing to play for in their final three games. Did their failure to win any of those matches mean momentum had disappeared by the time the play-offs came around? Possibly, although while Carrick opted to rest players for the game at Luton, injuries meant his hand was largely forced when it came to team selection.

Having avoided injury issues for most of the season, Boro were weakened at the worst possible time. The absence of Jonny Howson and Ramsey for both legs of the play-off semi-final was a damaging blow, and while Carrick’s side acquitted themselves reasonably well as they claimed an opening-leg draw at Coventry’s CBS Arena, they were distinctly off-colour as they lost 1-0 in the return game at the Riverside.

With their season over, the current Boro squad will now be broken up. Zack Steffen, Ryan Giles, Ramsey and Archer will all return to their permanent employers, and it remains to be seen whether there is room in Boro’s budget for any to be signed again.

A likelier scenario is that the Teessiders will have to embark on a summer recruitment drive to plug the gaps that are now apparent. That will not be easy, but in Carrick, they have a head coach players will want to work with, and in Scott, they have a head of football who is working to a clear plan and who finally has the support of those around him. For once, Boro are building from a position of strength instead of having to paper over the cracks.