It feels like yesterday that Middlesbrough had won the play-offs and were in the Premier League, but to look at the club’s league position in the Championship at the moment suggests that something has gone rotten on Teesside. At the time of writing, Middlesbrough find themselves hovering in the relegation zone, and although the battle to avoid the drop is intensely tight, where one win could see a considerable leap up the table, it’s not a position that Boro’s players, staff or supporters would’ve imagined they’d be in if you’d asked them at the beginning of the season.
Their disappointing post-lockdown form has yielded one win and three defeats thus far since the Championship’s restart, and has left them flirting dangerously with the dreaded drop zone. A lack of goals has been Boro’s chief concern, making them frequently unfancied in the Championship odds. They are the lowest scorers in the division so far this season, although they do boast a better defensive record than many of the teams around them in the table. But when push comes to shove in terms of staving off relegation, you need to be able to put the ball in the net.
It’s a shame that a great club like Middlesbrough finds itself in this position, but the truth is that Boro have struggled to re-establish themselves since they were relegated from the Premier League at the end of the 2008-09 campaign. When they did achieve promotion for the 2016-17 season, many felt this was Middlesbrough’s return to the big time, but disappointing performances left them struggling all campaign, and Boro were sent back from whence they came.
The club had enjoyed 11 consecutive seasons in the Premier League prior to their relegation in 2009, and there were some great memories made as the Teessiders became an established force in the top flight. There were FA Cup and League Cup finals to be enjoyed, with Middlesbrough winning the latter in 2004, and then there was the famous run to the Europa League Final (then known as the UEFA Cup) in the 2005-06 season. Sadly, a 4-0 humbling at the hands of Sevilla proved it was a step too far for Steve McLaren’s side, but it was a proud moment for the club’s supporters nonetheless, and proof of the team’s potential.
But the last 10 years or so have been defined by disappointment and underachievement. The Championship is a famously difficult league to get out of, but Middlesbrough are the kind of club you would expect to challenge for promotion more frequently than they have. The appetite is there amongst supporters to see their side back in the big time – the packed crowds at the Riverside Stadium in their most recent Premier League stadium are proof of this – and if Boro did re-assert themselves as an established top flight outfit, few would be surprised given the size and history of the club.
The task at hand, however, is to avoid a first descent into the third tier since the 1986-87 campaign – to avoid relegation this season and put a plan in place from which they can build for the future. When the Riverside Stadium was opened in 1995 to replace Ayresome Park, it was seen as a chance for Middlesbrough to ascend to the next level. They did for a while, but Boro fans have been made to endure far more mediocrity over the last decade than they would have thought possible when they were gracing major finals in the mid-2000s. For their sake, here’s hoping they don’t face fresh disappointment at the end of the current campaign.