We have a rota would you believe for doing these pre-match Q&As. Other than a few special requests, it’s supposed to be pot luck as to which teams we get to preview, so given our close relationship with Boro supporter of some repute, Paul Armstrong, it was pure good fortune on my part (ahem) that I just happened to be down for the Boro home game. As ever, Mr A obliged and here’s what he has to say…
Cheers, as ever, for doing this Paul. Regular MFW readers will obviously know Paul Armstrong’s backstory but for those who don’t (and for our new reader) could you just briefly tell us why for several years you were Public Enemy Number One within footballing circles and why you’re now living under an alias.
PA: Yes, I was the editor of Match of the Day at the BBC from 2000 to 2014, so was the person who put almost every Premier League team in the country as far down the running order as was humanly possible every week. Including my own team Middlesbrough, and Norwich when they were in the top flight. Even the big clubs were only on first when they lost because we were massively biased in favour of their rivals, whoever they were. Fans of all twenty clubs had generally been in touch to accuse us of doing them down by about the end of September every season. You can read all about it – the seven World Cups I worked on, and much else – in the book I’ve written which will be published by Pitch Publications in the New Year. The title is, naturally “Why Are We Always On Last?”
Nice. We used to claim we were so regularly last on MotD, we were first on The Championship. Well, we thought it was funny (and to be fair we did have Chris Hughton as manager then, so we weren’t exactly swashbuckling).
Anyway, so… Tony Pulis. How did Boro get here? What went wrong with the Garry Monk project?
Sadly, Garry Monk very quickly lost everyone at the Riverside, including the squad, by abandoning all semblance of defensive principles. We hadn’t been a wildly exciting team under Aitor Karanka, but we were pretty watertight, with Clayton and Leadbitter as fixtures in midfield just in front of the back four. Monk decided to drop both of them and we became absolutely porous and shambolic. Steve Gibson, a chairman previously noted for phenomenal patience, acted decisively after a few months and went to the other extreme with the tried and trusted old lag that is Tony Pulis. Horses for courses and all that – we
would never have made the playoffs under Monk, so even those (like me) who weren’t thrilled with the idea of watching Pulisball accepted that we needed stabilising, and he certainly did that.
Fair enough, and the Garry Monk myth seems to have to have been well and truly busted since those less than heady days.
What version of Pulis pitched up at the Riverside? Please tell me it isn’t the Stoke City Mark I version. The locals okay with a slightly less sophisticated brand of footie than what you’ve become accustomed to? Or, has the ol’ boy ‘mellowed’?
Well… we’ve suddenly become very good at set pieces and haven’t conceded a goal since the first day of the season. The giant Aden Flint has replaced Ben Gibson at the back and the small skilful Brazilian full-back, Fabio was straight out of the door to be replaced by tall, athletic long throw specialist Ryan Shotton. And he shored up midfield to protect the defence so we stopped being pushovers.
But…he’s much more pragmatic than I expected. The most exciting player Boro have had since Juninho – Olympic sprinter cum rugby league forward Adama Traore – mostly misfired under Karanka, and was a sad, peripheral figure under Monk. I assumed Pulis wouldn’t like the cut of his jib at all, but instead, it was an arm around the shoulder, an absolute transformation into a match winner, and eventually Wolves’ record signing in the summer.
Many of the others have improved enormously under his guidance, so the man clearly has something. The football we’re playing isn’t necessarily to the neutral’s taste – but frankly, who cares? I made my usual trip to Elland Road last season where Monk’s men capitulated and lost to a mediocre Leeds. I went there again the other Friday to see us completely negate a rejuvenated, previously rampant and free-scoring Leeds under Marcelo Bielsa/Jack Duckworth.
It finished 0-0 and we could have nicked it – there was some understandable media sniffiness about Boro’s approach, but any set of fans would rather see a united outfit battling for each other than a supposedly entertaining, but losing shambles. And that performance came after an awful transfer window where we sold Traore, Gibson and Bamford and lost almost every transfer target to Steve “Kid in a sweet shop” Bruce at Villa.
“A supposedly entertaining, but losing shambles”. *Gulp*
Media and opposition fan sniffiness aside, you’ve got off to something of a flier. Can you see this lasting? Is automatic promotion the aim or would you take top six if it was offered to you now?
I would undoubtedly have taken top six pre-season with what looked like a depleted squad, but our Wembley record is probably the worst in the whole of football – five visits, no wins (you know all about the last one) – so am just starting to wonder about automatic promotion. Probably a very foolish thought, given the backing Villa, Derby and Leeds to name but three big clubs have given their managers, but we may as well cling on to it for a while.
I think you have a realistic chance of top two under Sir Tony. And even if you don’t, you have to win at Wembley one day mate.
How’s Jonny H settled in now? Was quite an odd sight, seeing him being the last Boro player left on the pitch at the Riverside last season after we’d won 1-0 and he was left applauding or fans while the players celebrated the win in the background. He’ll probably have a stormer on Saturday!
As you may recall, I liked Jonny Howson as a footballer at Norwich and liked him from the off at Boro. He was one of those left exposed when Monk dispensed with the two tacklers in midfield, and he’s benefitted as much as anyone from Pulis recalling Clayton and bringing in the energetic Besic on loan from Everton. He put in a particularly superb man of the match display in our last home game – the 1-0 win over West Brom – so with any luck, he’s peaking just in time to remind you guys what he can do!
I don’t doubt for one second he will – ex-players have a tendency to enjoy returning to Carrow Road!
We’ll also cast an envious glance at Daniel Ayala – he was only here a relatively short time but for a reason that’s not obvious it just didn’t work out. Good player now though. Says it all I guess when his most defining moment for City came when he was wearing a Boro shirt (when Cameron Jerome brushed him aside for the first goal at Wembley).
I’m a big Ayala fan. If they ever bring in NFL style isolated cameras and VAR at defensive corners, he’ll concede five penalties a half, but that apart he’s been great for Boro. He’s suffered injuries, and may be better suited to the Championship than the Premier League, but his attitude and commitment are fantastic. He’s playing alongside Flint and the excellent but raw 20-year-old Dael Fry in a three-man centre-back partnership most weeks and has been outstanding. Watch him gift you a goal again now I’ve said that. So much went wrong that day at Wembley, though, that he’s never been singled out for criticism.
Thanks for mentioning Wembley again – still gives us a warm, fuzzy feeling, even though it has turned to rat $hit since.
Going back to your current side, for someone who we were told had ‘knees made of cheese’, Britt Assombalonga seems to be doing okay! In Alex Neil’s final summer transfer window here we, apparently, had a look at him but were warned off by the then Forest manager, Dougie Freedman (apparently a mate of Neil’s), who informed us his knees were already knackered. We followed the advice, steered clear and ended up instead with Nelson Oliveira, which looked like it could work but ultimately… didn’t. Another example of our bloody brilliant recruitment around that time!
Assombalonga is another we didn’t think Pulis would fancy – we thought he’d opt to play long balls to Rudy Gestede instead – and Britt generally came off the bench in the early days of Pulis, but with Bamford gone, he’s been first choice number 9 and has responded well. The big surprise has been his all-round contribution, defending corners, generally working his socks off and contributing to pressing opposition defences, but I guess you don’t get in a Pulis team without showing willing in those departments.
That’s certainly true. If you’re not the type to ‘put in a shift’ you’re not fit for Pullis (almost worked).
Unlike ourselves, you do actually have a few faces remaining from that afternoon at Wembley (sorry, can’t help myself). As well as Ayala, I think I’m right in saying that George Friend, Adam Clayton and Grant Leadbitter are still around?
Yes, all those guys are still around. Leadbitter will probably be on the bench on Saturday, but the other three should start. In this day and age, it’s good to see some continuity in a team. With Stewart Downing ending his career where he started, and Ben Gibson promising to return one day (maybe if Burnley and Boro swap divisions next summer?) plus all the academy graduates we have in the squad, we at least seem to be recognisable from season to season. If there ever was any badge-kissing at Boro – and Pulis probably makes sure there isn’t – there’s a fair chance at least some of it would be sincere.
Badge-kissing and actually meaning it – now there’s a weird phenomenon.
Ok, so, be honest, who’s going to hurt us tomorrow? We’re already bracing ourselves.
To be honest, Boro are more likely to physically hurt you with robust tackles and an aerial presence at set-pieces than to rip you apart with scintillating football. Martin Braithwaite, the Danish international who Monk bought but who then spent most of last season on loan at Bordeaux, is possibly the one with something a bit different up his sleeve. Then again, he wanted another loan move, this time to Spain just before the recent window shut, so who knows where his head is or whether Uncle Tony will start him.
My money’s on a stroppy Braithwaite getting picked and scoring.
What have you made of our German experiment so far? We’re all a bit hhmm right now. But, if nothing else, it’s guaranteed to be a contrast of styles on Saturday!
Yes, hhmm seems like the right word. I thought you’d be top six last season having seen you early on, so I’m no longer predicting how you’ll get on. Though this is a ridiculously competitive and arduous division, it’s also fairly even, so get yourselves on a run and the table can look very different very quickly. Just look at Fulham last year, although admittedly they had some very good players and the manager was able to rope in his compatriot Mitrovic at the critical moment. Does Farke not have Mesut Ozil and Leroy Sane in his mobile phone contacts?
His little black book tends to be full of contacts from players in second tiers – with good reason to be fair.
So, finally… standard … score prediction?
Low scoring draw. Boro to win the card count, rough you up at set pieces and escape with their unbeaten run intact, allowing you guys to congratulate yourselves on playing nicer football and not being dragged down to Pulis’s level. That way (for once) no-one can say I’m biased.
We’d take that to be honest, Paul (we know you don’t mean it 😉 )
Thanks, as always, to Paul for his time. What a nice chap (and good luck with the book!).
A 1-1 draw last time out saw City retain the streak; Town gain another star for their shirt (probably); and left us with a two-way tie for top spot MFW’s tipster league.
Unbeaten Boro, who are tied at the top of another (less important) league table, head to Carrow Road full of confidence, but what do our panel think?
Penney predicts: A very awkward one. Pulis has them playing with wing-backs who really know how to deliver a cross. A tight one, but 0-1 to Boro I’m afraid.
Andy assumes: Pulis is very good at collecting big, strong aggressive lads that can battle and I’m not sure we’re currently equipped to stay with them. 0-2 to Boro.
Gaz (G) guesses: As hard as I try, am struggling to find a case for a draw, let alone a City win. We don’t respond well to ‘up and at ‘em’ teams and Pulis’s are the best in this genre. Sorry, but 0-1 Boro ☹
Cookie concludes: Pulis wins few friends but plenty of football matches. If you thought Karanka came to do a job, we’ve seen nothing yet. Boro to win 1-2 in a game that will live short in the memory.
Stew suspects: Plenty of reasons to be pessimistic – but City have a strong performance in them. A hard-fought stalemate, 1-1.
The oppo’s opinion: Low scoring draw. Boro to win the card count, rough you up at set pieces and escape with their unbeaten run intact. (We’ll call that 1-1 – Ed).
Siri says: ‘I’d really prefer it if you talked to me.Tell me your hopes, your dreams, where you’d like to make a dinner reservation’. 4-3 City.
Join the ‘fun’ by adding your predictions in the comments below. We’re keeping track and will publish the ‘full league table’ soon.