THE story of Middlesbrough’s season didn’t begin in August. The fixture list might suggest otherwise, but if you’re going to assess everything that has happened to Michael Carrick and his squad over the course of the last nine months, you have to go back to May and the play-off semi-finals. Missing out on the Premier League was a sliding doors moment that has had a profound impact on the current campaign.

For a second, let’s imagine Boro had beaten Coventry and also seen off Luton at Wembley. Chuba Akpom would have stayed, no doubt on a lucrative long-term contract. Cameron Archer and Ryan Giles would have been permanent additions, perhaps with Aaron Ramsey joining them. The side that finished last season would have been the core of the Teessiders’ future. After all, the building blocks were already in place.

Instead, the team was dismantled. Akpom went to Ajax, Archer, Giles and Ramsey returned to their permanent employers, before being shuffled out elsewhere, and Carrick and the rest of Boro’s recruitment team found themselves having to tackle the kind of rebuilding job that is extremely difficult to enact in a single summer. As subsequent events have proved, the task was too big for them. Crucially, though, lessons have been learned. This summer, it will be evolution rather than revolution on Boro’s agenda.

Let’s go back to last summer though, and while Carrick, Kieran Scott and the rest of Boro’s transfer team were unable to assemble a squad capable of winning promotion, the events of the last nine months have gradually revealed the quality of their recruitment work. For big chunks of the campaign, questions over the wisdom of a number of the summer signings felt justified. By the end of the season, most had been successfully answered.

Morgan Rogers? Bought from Manchester City for around £1m and a substitute for much of the autumn. Sold to Aston Villa for around £15m in the January window and now a Premier League regular. Emmanuel Latte Lath? Signed from Atalanta for a reported fee of around £4m, but only scored five league goals before the start of March. Finished the season with 16 Championship goals and Premier League clubs displaying an increased interest. Rav van den Berg? Plucked from PEC Zwolle as a largely untried teenager. Now one of the hottest defensive properties in the Championship. Alex Gilbert and Sammy Silvera? Completely unproven youngsters who were on the periphery of the first team for much of the season. Regarded as exciting prospects now settled in the Championship by the end of the campaign.

The Northern Echo: Morgan Rogers left Middlesbrough to join Aston VillaMorgan Rogers left Middlesbrough to join Aston Villa (Image: Andrew Varley)

Boro’s recruitment work was excellent last summer. The problem was that, with Seny Dieng, Tom Glover, Lukas Engel, Alex Bangura, Lewis O’Brien and Sam Greenwood also arriving, an entirely new team, comprised largely of promising, but undoubtedly raw, youngsters had to be thrown together from scratch. Had they hit the ground running back in August, Boro might well have been celebrating promotion this month. Instead, as was probably inevitable given the scale of the overhaul, teething problems were apparent throughout much of the autumn.

In fact, initially at least, the alarm bells were well and truly ringing for the first couple of months of the campaign. It is easy to overlook now, with Boro having eventually finished just four points and two places off the play-off positions, but Carrick’s side picked up just two points from their opening seven Championship matches. The first half at Hillsborough in September was the nadir, with Boro looking so out of sorts that relegation looked a real possibility. They improved marginally after the break, with a goal from Darragh Lenihan salvaging a 1-1 draw, but still left South Yorkshire rooted to the foot of the table. Carrick’s position was never under serious threat, but a radical improvement was clearly required. It arrived between late September and mid-December.

If Boro’s season can be split into four distinct quarters, then the second was when the green shoots of recovery first appeared. A crucial home win over promotion-chasing Southampton sparked a run of six successive league victories that contained the 4-0 thrashing of Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, a game that, for many fans, would remain one of the highlights of the campaign.


Boro climbed to seventh in the table, and also saw off a succession of lower-league sides to reach the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup. Greenwood, a loan signing from Leeds, was clicking into gear. Hayden Hackney was rediscovering the form that had made him such a key performer in the previous season. Isaiah Jones was back, mentally refreshed and as incisive as ever, and a number of the summer signings were starting to find their feet. The centre-forward position was still an issue – Latte Lath was still feeling his way into things, while Josh Coburn was struggling to stay fit – but Rogers and Matt Crooks had shown themselves to be capable of leading the line if required. Things were looking up.

Then, however, things stuttered around Christmas. From the start of December to the middle of February, Boro won just four of their 13 league games. There was the high of the semi-final first-leg win over Chelsea at the Riverside, but that was swiftly followed by the crushing blow of the 6-1 annihilation at Stamford Bridge. The start of the season left Boro playing catch-up, but ultimately, it was the spell around the turn of the year that proved fatal to hopes of promotion.

So, what went wrong? Injuries, mainly. Boro’s absentee list had been slowly mounting during the autumn, but it reached crippling levels by the midpoint of the campaign. Tommy Smith, out for the season. Lenihan, the same. Paddy McNair and Dael Fry, barely seen in the spring. Hackney, season ruined by a Valentine’s Day knee injury. Riley McGree and Marcus Forss, ruled out for the rest of the campaign not long after. There were times in early spring when Rockliffe Park was more like a field hospital than a training ground.

Carrick tried his best to hold things together, but in the end, there were too many square pegs in round holes. Boro would occasionally produce glimpses of what might be possible – January’s away win at Millwall was emphatic – but the performance level was inconsistent as the team constantly chopped and changed. In the space of less than a month, Boro picked up just one point from two games against Rotherham, the worst team in the league by a distance. How they could have done with those dropped points come May.

The Northern Echo: Middlesbrough head coach Michael CarrickMiddlesbrough head coach Michael Carrick (Image: Andrew Varley)

By the start of March, after they lost to Plymouth and Stoke on successive weekends, Boro had dropped to 14th. Promotion looked completely out of the question. If anything, the prospect of a battle against relegation was threatening to return.

Suddenly, though, just as quickly as the downturn had arrived, so it disappeared. March’s 3-1 win at Norwich was a crucial victory that sparked a nine-game unbeaten run that completely transformed both the prevailing mood around the club and the overall narrative of the season. Boro had regained their swagger, to the extent that they picked up 25 points from a possible 36 from the Norwich game onwards.

What changed? Injured players gradually began to return, which helped, but the main alteration was the way in which a number of Boro’s signings blossomed. Latte Lath was the most obvious example, with his goalscoring form in the final two months of the season genuinely exceptional. He wasn’t the only one though. Luke Ayling, a January loan addition from Leeds, excelled at right-back. Luke Thomas, Bangura and Engel all improved on the opposite side of the back four. O’Brien, back from injury, was like a midfielder reborn, reminding everyone of why he had been such a hot property during his time with Huddersfield. Finn Azaz, another January signing, this time from Aston Villa, rapidly developed into one of the most exciting attacking-midfielders in the division.

The disappointment was that the season had to end. While other clubs limped over the finishing line, Boro were doing far by their best work in the final few weeks of the campaign. Immediately, that’s one difference from the previous season, when results tailed off. The most crucial, though, is that the current squad will largely be intact when the action resumes in August. As Carrick so rightly stated after the final game, this should be the start of something rather than the end.