I always look forward to City v Boro, and not just because we have a good recent record against them or because it gives us a chance to rehash that now-famous YouTube clip of that Boro fan telling us “yous is shite”.
While all of the above contain elements of fact, my real reason for looking forward to Norfolk crossing swords with Teeside is that it gives us an excuse to chat again with Paul Armstrong – formerly editor of Match of the Day and now author extraordinaire, who also happens to be a Boro diehard and friend of MyFootballWriter.
So, without further ado…
Thanks for joining us again, Paul. The last time we spoke, one Neil Warnock had the Boro reins and, despite both of our misgivings over his political gibberish, he was doing a steady job. Dare I say, from our conversation, it appeared you’d even started to warm to the old fool (from a strictly footballing perspective of course). Where and when did it all start going wrong for Colin?
It went wrong for Colin in my eyes in 1991, when he complained publicly about a match edit I did, during a Notts County FA Cup run. But in terms of Boro, while there was grudging respect for him stabilising the club mid-season when he took over during lockdown, the football was nigh on unwatchable once the crowds came back.
In a rare display of sentiment in football, they let him break the record for most league games managed by one, then sacked him. I’d have left him fuming at one short personally, but there you go.
And then of course it was Chris Wilder, who from the outside looking in had made quite the initial impact. So much so, I had you guys down as one of the favorites for promotion. Same question. Where and when did it all start going wrong for Gene?
Even by the fickle standards of football, the Chris Wilder era at Boro saw an extreme “hero to zero” trajectory. He instantly turned the same players who’d looked dour & dispirited under Colin into a swashbuckling, overlapping centre back, replica of his Sheffield United promotion side, only for it all to collapse like a non-Delia soufflé in the space a couple of months.
On March 1st, I went North in midweek to watch us deservedly put Harry Kane & co out of the FA Cup, in front of a full house on an evening universally hailed as the best at the Riverside since our European adventures a decade and a half earlier. We looked nailed on for the playoffs, MOTM Jonny Howson ran the show with one of the best individual Boro performances I’ve ever seen, and I could scarcely have felt more upbeat.
Two months later, we’d missed out on the playoffs, and Wilder’s public dalliance with the Burnley job he was never offered, irrevocably soured his relationship with Steve Gibson and much of the supporter base. When the same thing happened in September with the Bournemouth managerial vacancy, combined with a bad start to the season, the end was nigh. I saw four early away games this season in London & the SE – all defeats, only the one at Watford even vaguely unlucky, and could barely recognise what was mostly the same XI who’d looked so buoyant in the spring.
Also when we last spoke you used the phrase, “If we could just cut out the alternating rotten appointments, it would make for an easier life as a supporter.” I’m losing track, does Michael Carrick now count as part of the rotten or good part of the Boro managerial cycle?
Good so far. I was pleased with the appointment, especially since Lee Cattermole had been the bookies’ favourite at one point. Yes, really. If you thought Warnock was bad, imagine him dealing with fourth officials. The complication in the good/rotten cycle is Jonathan Woodgate returning as first-team coach after a brief, difficult managerial stint before Warnock and Wilder.
Unlike some of our fans, I’m giving this the benefit of the doubt. Firstly, he was handed a stick of dynamite instead of a baton, tasked with clearing out Garry Monk’s expensive dead wood; secondly, Carrick knows him and his love of Boro well from Spurs and thirdly: I see it as a good thing when someone is big enough to accept a less senior role to which they might be better suited. If only politicians would do likewise…
Steve Gibson is, I assume, still the club’s owner. After many successful years at the club and a background that was the epitome of rags-to-riches, you were fearful of him turning into an Alan Sugar tribute act after he’d made some rather odd proclamations about the “luvvies” of the arts and entertainment industries over the period of lockdowns. He even aligned himself with the recent chair of the Tories, Jake Bell (Kids – never align yourself with Jake Bell). Has he recovered from what was obviously a nasty bang on the head?
I used to love the fact that our chairman was an ex-YTS lad and Middlesbrough’s youngest Labour councillor. I can make no sense whatsoever of his conversion to all things alt-right and anti-woke. Most of the rest of Teesside has now woken up from its 2016-19 loss of sanity, so I’m hoping Mr Gibson catches up.
One of the most recent recipients of his patronage, the quite abysmal Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen (nephew of diving header Keith) is about to escape the burning wreckage as a newly-ennobled Boris Johnson peer. Several recent editions of Private Eye have devoted space to what Houchen and his cronies have been up to, but suffice to say, my Boro mates just know him as Coxy after Reeves and Mortimer’s dodgy councillor characters:
Anyway, before we get told off (again), while these are very early days in the Carrick era, what are your initial impressions? (Great win away at Blackpool by the way). Are you expecting the football to eventually become a bit more beautiful after recently being Warnock-ed and Wilder-ed?
It doesn’t always work this way – George Graham, for example, was an elegant if somewhat lightweight midfielder, who then built his teams on defence – but we’re all hoping Carrick will inject some of what he picked up at Spurs, Man United and England into our club.
Having had elegance and a football brain which made up for a lack of pace, he should definitely be able to get the most out of whatever Jonny Howson has left in the tank. And the early signs are fairly good so far – what should have been a win at home to Bristol City, followed by that almost trouble-free away win at Blackpool.
Although it’s probably been regarded as a disappointing few months on Teesside, given the state of the Championship and its ability to produce unexpected results (not sure why they’re still unexpected now when they happen so frequently), you’re only seven points adrift of sixth-place [we’ll ignore the fact you’re just two clear of the drop zone].
If you were Shearer on the MOTD sofa and Lineker asked for your opinion on what’s next for Boro, what would you say?
I’d like to think we can start looking upwards a bit, under new management. I think we’ll finish mid-table, which will be OK given the start we had. Though we are still too close to the drop zone for complacency, I don’t think we’re bad enough to go down. A Cup run like last year’s would be a bonus.
The Championship is both wonderful, in that anyone can – and does – beat anyone, but paradoxically, a bit rubbish for the same reason. Especially this season – I’m yet to see a team to match Fulham last season or Norwich or Leeds in recent years – so it’s not impossible that we make the playoffs. As City keep proving, there’s a gulf between Championship and Premier League, unless you have a Bielsa or Frank or Wilder (for that one season) at the helm.
It might be dangerous to somehow squeeze into the playoffs, then go up and be embarrassed. Our last season in the top flight, under Karanka in 2016/7, has scarred many of us. Five wins all season, two of which scarcely count because they came against an even worse Sunderland team.
Who has impressed so far this season? Jonny Howson still imperious in the centre of that midfield? I miss being able to make that lame Britt “cheese-knees” Assombalonga joke to be honest. Who’s taken on the goalscoring baton from Britt?
Chuba Akpom, has returned from a Wilder-imposed loan spell in the Greek league from whence we originally bought him, and is looking sharp and hungry. He’s scored in all four games since Carrick took over. Jonny has been a fixture in the team since we last spoke, even as he enters his late fifties. (Subs, please check date of birth – thanks, Ed) 😀
Rightly our player of the year last season, he looked like his time might finally be up during our leaden performances early this season. However, I’m optimistic that Carrick fully appreciates his worth, and the recent addition of young Hayden Hackney into the midfield, has given Jonny a gofer with the legs to do some of his running for him.
The other thing to watch out for is our two full-backs – Isaiah Jones and Wolves loanee Ryan Giles – who like to get forward. On a good day. Which might not be Saturday.
Before we get on to the standard final question, what’s Paul Armstrong up to these days? Going to miss the buzz of a World Cup from a TV editorial perspective? In your previous life, you’d have been heading out to the land of Richard Keys and Andy Gray? Any books pending?
No third book imminently pending. I’ve long since wanted to do something on North East football, and how its been inseparably interwoven with the rise and fall of society in general up there since the 19th century. The Saudi ownership of Newcastle has thrown a bit of a spanner into that one, but maybe I should cynically complete it when they inevitably start buying themselves trophies.
I’m really happy not to be working on this World Cup. Much as it’s a privilege and a career pinnacle to have worked on the seven from 1990 to 2014, I loved just watching the last one as a fan, without all the attendant pressure.
For all the understandable negativity, once this one starts, it may well get some of the highest viewing figures ever. Evening kick-offs – and even weekend afternoons – on free-to-air channels as the nights draw in, instead of competing with barbecues and summer holidays, are going to draw most of us in.
The players shouldn’t be as jaded as they usually are post-season and the lack of expectation surrounding England, and their coach, the only Boro captain ever to lift a trophy, might even benefit us. Cruel defeat to France in the QF is how my wallchart sees it panning out.
Finally, standard as promised, care to offer up a score prediction for Saturday?
We’ve both improved lately, so I’ll go for Akpom to score early in a draw. Let’s say 1-1, not 4-4 this time. Even so, we’ll hang on to a lead for 80 minutes, before a diminutive Adam Drury-like figure scores a headed equaliser in the seventh minute of injury-time. Yes, that particular journey to Norfolk still haunts me…