Middlesbrough became a morbid footballing town throughout the latter period of Tony Pulis’ 18 month stint. The fare was unambitious and decidedly unattractive. At times it felt like a throwback to the hoof-ball of yesteryear.
This approach can perhaps be excused if the results are encouraging but the boos rang out loudest around the Riverside when Boro lost four home games on the bounce in spring and, when a play-off spot ultimately eluded his team, Pulis was gone to very little acclaim.
Whoever took over then had a PR open goal requiring only a tap-in awaiting them and Jonathan Woodgate wasted no time in capitalising. On his appointment earlier this month the former Leeds and Real Madrid centre-back said: “We want to get fans on the edge of their seat. We want as many fans back in the stadium as we can by playing attacking, exciting football.”
Moments earlier the 39-year-old had barely sat down next to club chairman Steve Gibson when he said the following: “I’ve been a Middlesbrough fan since I was six-years-old and my father used to take me to Ayresome Park.”
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Revealing himself to be the antithesis of the unpopular Pulis while reminding all present that he has a long-standing and deep emotional connection to the proud North East club was always going to go down well.
Furthermore it will buy a rookie head coach a good deal of time and tolerance, thus allowing him to make his mistakes and find his feet in management after several years scouting for Liverpool post-retirement, before coaching Middlebrough’s academy talent until he was promoted onto Pulis’ staff.
When these gigs are strung together they suggest a determination to learn through the levels – an old-school approach that sadly seems to have fallen from favour these days – and this impresses given that Woodgate’s playing pedigree could well have seen him walk into a top job, as evidenced by a handful of his England colleagues, Frank Lampard to Derby being just one example.
And that is not the only thing that impresses about someone whose cultured and distinguished career still unfairly brings up a prominent Google ranking for a nightmare debut for Los Blancos. On his appointment Woodgate stressed the importance of bringing through the young talent progressing well in the academy: “I want to really promote the youth,” Woodgate said, per Telegraph.
Granted this is largely a necessity – with Boro already being forced to offload £40m worth of players to balance the books – but it’s a bold and brave claim for any inexperienced gaffer to make nonetheless. Then there is his recruitment of a clean sweep of faces behind the scenes – including Robbie Keane and the vastly experienced Steve Round. This is another progressive step heralding a new dawn.
Most of all though, from a personal perspective, I believe Jonathan Woodgate will prove to be a success on Teeside because when I interviewed him last year he greatly surprised in an entirely positive sense. He was no-nonsense but courteous. He revealed himself to be deep-thinker on tactics and the game in general.
“He’ll be a good manager one day.” I recall thinking.
Now, in his dream first job, surrounded by the right personnel, and carrying the goodwill of thousands for not being Tony Pulis, he has all the ingredients to make that happen.