Where are they now? Boro’s Bees Play-Off Semi-Final Beaters

*LONG READ*
May 15th 2015. A Riverside Stadium packed to the rafters welcomes their Teesside heros to the pitch, a week after they saw their side clutch victory from the jaws of a stalemate thanks to the left boot of Fernando Amorebieta.

As Pigbag rings out from the tannoy system, all 30,000+ Middlesbrough fans clap in unison, singing and chanting. It’s an atmosphere like which the North East hasn’t seen since Steua Bucharest arrived in 2006.

The noise in the stadium is cranked up at Lee Tomlin slots home a 23rd minute stike and the Boro players keep up the intersity for the remaining 67. Middlesbrough are off to Wembley.

For years to come, games against Brentford will always remind Boro fans of the 2014/15 campaign and, more specifically, the play-off semi-final.

Even though a lot of time has past since the post-season showdown, fans who witnessed the game – be that on TV, through the radio or being at the Riverside in person – still remember the game fondly. Certainly more so than the next round…

There has been lots of changes for both sides since the final whistle sounded almost four years ago. Today we’ll assess just how much the Boro squad has changed, specifically looking at where are the players from that match now.

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Dimi celebrates Middlesbrough’s promotion in 2016 | Photo Credit: MFC

Goalkeeper – Dimi Konstantopolous – Current club: Middlesbrough

Looking back at it, the story of Dimi’s time at Boro is an odd one. A goalkeeper who was ‘getting on up there’ in age arrived on a short-term deal and, after some tutelage by Shay Given, emerged as one of the best ‘keepers in the league.

After the two legs against Brentford and two goals conceded at Wembley, Dimi returned as the starting ‘keeper for Middlesbrough’s 15/16 promotion winning season. The Greek stopper kept 22 clean sheets in the 48 league matches enroute to a second place finish in the Championship.

Dimi was replaced by much-accomplished goalkeeper Victor Valdes during the summer window and pushed even further down the pecking order by the arrival of Brad Guzan. He became the team’s oldest ever player in a recent FA Cup tie against Peterborough at the age of 40 years and 37 days.

RB – Dean Whitehead – Current club: Huddersfield Town (Coach)

Aitor Karanka made the rather bold and conservative move on utilising the former Stoke City and Sunderland midfielder as a fullback during Boro’s play-off campaign. Whitehead played 18 times in the season and was a bit-part player, usually deputising for one of the central midfielders should they succumb to injury or suspension.

Whitehead would leave Middlesbrough after the season and eventually earned promotion to the Premier League two years later with Huddersfield Town. After retiring at the start of the 2018/19, Whitehead joined the Terriers’ coaching staff and recently returned to Rockliffe Park to witness his Under 23 side lose 3-0 to Boro.

Cheeky cameo for @htafcdotcom‘s @442Dean in the bottom right of your picture! 👀 #UTB— Middlesbrough FC (@Boro) February 27, 2019

CB – Daniel Ayala – Current club: Middlesbrough

Since arriving on Teesside on an emergency loan before Karanka took over in 2013, Ayala has – when available – been a mainstay in the Boro side. No matter the manager, formation or opponent, Ayala has been a great servant to Middlesbrough, even though he can be hot headed and make rash decisions.

Ayala has netted 16 times in 144 appearences for the Reds and was, this year, described by Tony Pulis as the best defender in the division. The spaniard looks set to make his 27th appearance of the year against Brenford on Saturday.

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Daniel Ayala ceebrates a goal with his centre-back partner Ben Gibson | Photo Credit: Evening Gazette

CB – Ben Gibson – Current club: Burnley

Nunthorpe Nesta, Pallister Park Puyol, Boro’s Baresi. How ever you want to word it, Ben Gibson was arguably Middlesbrough’s best player every year for the last four seasons (with the possible exceptions of 14/15 Patrick Bamford and 2018 Adama Traore)

The born and bread Teessider could have left Middlesbrough for greener pasturers many times, before leaving for Burnley in July 2018. He may even still be at the club had finances not dictated otherwise. Gibson has made a total of five appearances for the Clarets this term with just one coming in the league.

LB – George Friend – Current club: Middlesbrough

If a discussion is to be had about bargain signings made by Middlebrough over the past decade, Geroge Friend’s name has to be in that conversation. Plucked from Doncaster Rovers for £100,000, Friend has been Middlesbrough’s starting left back for six years -save around six months where Fabio da Silva was favoured under Garry Monk.

It can be argued that he has lost a yard of pace and he would benefit from some competition in his spot, Friend – like the previous two players – has been a great player to have amongst the ranks on Teesside. The team’s captain is currently out injured due to a knock picked up against Blackburn Rovers and won’t be risked this weekend.

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George Friend applauds the Middlesbrough fans after losing the 2015 Play-Off Final | Photo Credit: Northern Echo

CM – Grant Leadbitter – Current club: Sunderland

Another name worthy of throwing into the afor mentioned bargain signing converstion is another man brought to the club by Tony Mowbray. Leadbitter arrived on Teesside on a free transfer from Ipswich Town 2011 and the Mackem took the captains armband from Rhys Williams two years later. The former Sunderland midfield general became the club’s captain following Jonathan Woodgate’s retirement in 2015.

During the 2019 January Window, 212 appearances and 28 goals after signing for Boro, Leadbitter returned to his home town club on the banks of the river Wear.

(Fun fact: Grant Leadbitter has scored twice at Old Trafford for Boro – once in a 2015 penalty shootout and once in a 2-1 loss in 2017 – the same amount as Alexis Sanchez has for Manchester United and Arsenal.)

CM – Adam Clayton – Current club: Middlesbrough

Bought from Huddersfield for £2.5 million in 2014, Clayton formed the spine of what woul become the Championship’s best defence over the coming seasons.

Despite being a regular fixture during most of his time on Teesside, Clayton has only netted once for Middlesbrough. The goal cam against his former team in a 2-0 win in 2015. Clayton will, most likely, be on the bench for Boro this weekend after John Obi Mikel displaced him from the starting line up after the Nigerian’s January arrival.

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Albert Adomah celebrates Middlesbrough’s promotion in 2016 | Photo Credit: ITV

RM – Albert Adomah – Current club: Aston Villa

Adomah was a £1 million purchase for, you guessed it, Mowbray. The fee was a large one by the standard set during Mowbray’s time in charge of Middlesbrough. The Ghanian, however, repaid every penny of the fee as he scored 12 times during his debut season at the Riverside.

The former Bristol City winger helped Boro to the Premier League with his goals and assists from the right flank – namely his assist for David Nugent’s goal against Hull City in 2016.) Despite being linked with a move back to Middlesbrough this term, Adomah remains with Aston Villa.

LM – Lee Tomlin – Current Club: Peterborough United

When Tomlin arrived on Teesside, many eyebrows were raised. He was a signing announced minutes after transfer deadline day in 2014 and fans were bemused as to why he’d been brought into the side.

On his day, he was a great player for Boro, with the ability to pick a pass and turn a defender. Arguably his most memorable moment in the red of Middlesbrough was to turn Premier League winning defender Vincet Kompany inside out and hit the post in a 2-0 FA Cup win over Manchester City. Tomlin also opened the scoring in this semi-final second leng.

Tomlin left Middlesbrough in 2015 for Bournemouth and has since has stints at Cardiff City and Nottingham Forest before returning to Peterborough United, where he scored on his second debut.

Tomlin gets past Vincent Kompany at the Etihad Stadium in 2015 | Photo Credit: Alamy

CF – Jelle Vossen – Current club: Club Brugge

If you were to look up ‘social media firestorm’ in a dictionary, then you would likely see a reference to #FreeJelleVossen. Middlesbrough fans were so set on getting KRC Genk to let their Belgian forward join their Teesside team, that their efforts got them onto the news in Belgium.

When he eventually arrived into English football, Vossen struggled to hit the ground running. It took him until December 3rd to score his first Middlesbrough goal, and he added two more in the same match against Millwall at The Den.

It was Vossen who openeing the scoring in the first leg as he headed home a free-kick to give Middlesbrough a one goal advantage.

ST – Kike Garcia – Current Club: SD Eibar

Ole, ole, ole. Following his arrival from Real Murcia in 2014, as Aitor Karanka started to put his stamp on Middlesbrough football club, Kike quickly became a fan favourite partly through scoring goals and partly becuase of his catchy song.

To many it felt as if Kike did not reach his full potential with Middlesbrough (much like Cristhian Stuani) and he left Teesside in 2015 after scoring 15 goals in 53 games in England. His goal against Brentford on May 15th and subsequent shirtless celebration is one of the long lasting memories from the match. Kike now plays for Eibar in La Liga and has scored 18 times for them.

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Kike wheels away in celebration after putting Middlesbrough up 4-1 on aggregate | Photo Credit: Daily Mail

What is Middlesbrough’s best XI at the moment?

At the turn of the year, Middlesbrough fans seemed to hold a great deal of animosity against Tony Pulis. The team was under performing, and a Boxing Day defeat to Sheffield Wednesday after being knocked out of the Carabao Cup by League One Burton Albion, only compounded fans’ misery.

Since then, however, Boro have seen an upturn in form. One loss in the 11 games since December 26th has eased pressure on the Welshman, and Boro sit comfortably in the play-off places.

This upturn in form can be attributed to different factors. The reinstatement of Lewis Wing to the side after he fell out of favor following the summer signings on Mo Besic and George Saville in his position.

Lewis Wing celebrates scoring the opener against Leeds United | Photo Credit: Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

Whenever the cameras arrive on Teesside for a game, the commentator will always bring up Wing’s past – playing for non-league Shildon, or working part-time in a ‘shower factory’ – but the Newton Aycliffe born midfielder has an eye for a pass and the ability to pull of a thunderbolt. One could easily give him player of the season up to this stage.

One surprising factor about Middlesbrough’s form, is that it has continued through a stage where Pulis found his defensive numbers depleted. Firstly, Danny Batth – who made 10 appearances for Boro – swapped the Tees for the Trent and joined Stoke City. The hierarchy at the Riverside chose not to replace the former Wolverhampton Wanderers captain.

This decision looked like a risky one as Danny Ayala and Aden Flint picked up a suspension and injury respectively in a 1-0 defeat at Brammal Lane. A make shift back line of Jonny Howson, Dael Fry, Ryan Shotton, George Freind and George Saville travelled to face Blackburn at Ewood Park.

Daniel Ayala receives his marching orders following his second yellow card vs Sheffield United | Photo Credit: Alamy

Middlesbrough dominated proceedings as Rovers’ head coach and former Boro centre back watched on from the touchline. Pulis would have been all too happy to keep this back line for a home fixture against QPR the following week. But an injury to Friend kept him out of the match.

Ayala’s timely return meant he took Friend’s place in the starting XI and again Boro kept a clean sheet. Not only this, but the attack looked to be clicking with Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher teaming up as a duo for the first time in their tenure on Teesside.

Mo Besic and Bradley Dack fight for the ball during Middlesbrough’s 1-0 win at Ewood Park in 2019 | Photo Credit: @Boro

The side faltered against Wigan, drawing 0-0, but Assombalonga and Fletcher both had chances to steal three points for the Reds – whose fans traveled in great number to the DW stadium – but neither could provide the finishing touch.

This gives Pulis a headache for the upcoming weeks and months, when he will see Flint and Friend return from injury, as well as Marcus Tavernier who has impressed Pulis in recent training sessions, and Jordan Hugill having to be content with a spot on the bench.

As the old saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Although teams like Norwich and Bristol City may be able to attack Middlesbrough’s make-shift wing back tandem more effectively than Blackburn and Wigan did, both players have played well. Howson, especially, has given Boro a different threat with his work rate and willingness to attack the opposite fullback.

Assombalonga has looked better when alongside a strike partner this season, and Fletcher looks to be more mobile and able to create for the team than Hugill recently. Lewis Wing is very close to being the first name on Pulis’ teamsheet at the moment, and if it is not Wing then it is John Obi Mikel

John Obi Mikel warms up for Middlesbrough | Photo Credit: Gazette Boro

So what should Pulis do?

Middlesbrough XI:

Randolph; Howson, Fry, Shotton, Friend, Saville; Mikel, Wing; Tavernier, Fletcher, Assombalonga.

The five-at-the-back formation is working for Boro’s Welsh manager, and changing now would impact the team’s morale. John Obi Mikel has brought a different level of ability to the midfield. Adding composure and the ability to start an attack to the skill set of Adam Clayton.

Playing Lewis Wing in a deeper role could take away from his style of play, but against Wigan, BBC Tees expert summariser Neil Maddison pointed out that Besic was too much on the toes of Mikel and was inhibiting his impact on the game. Allowing Wing to get forward and support the attack, along side Tavernier and Fletcher’s speed and Assombalonga’s movement is surely a recipe for success.

Darren Randolph’s case for ‘Best Goalkeeper in the Championship’

Garry Monk’s short lived time on Teesside can be catagorised in two words: overspending and underachieving.

The former Swansea City and Leeds United boss spent over £30 million on strikers alone. Monk broke Boro’s transfer record when he splashed £15 million on Nottingham Forest’s Britt Assombalonga; as well as bringing in Ashley Fletcher from West Ham United and Martin Braithwaite from Toulouse.

One position on the pitch Monk’s recruitment came up trumps, however, was between the sticks, as Darren Randolph – like Fletcher – was signed from West Ham for £5 million. The decision for the Hammers to sell the Republic of Ireland was a knock on affect from England’s number 1 Joe Hart arriving on loan at the London Stadium and raised eyebrows in some circles.

Darren Randolph signs for Middlesbrough | Photo Credit: MFC.co.uk

Since his arrival at Middlesbrough, Randolph has been nothing short of exemplary, only missing out on the team’s Player of the Year award for the 2017/18 season because of Adama Traore’s sudden arrival as one of the league’s best players.

Randolph, who has 33 Ireland caps to his name, carried his form over into the new season. He has made two mistakes during his time on the banks of the Tees – namely clearing into the Ben Gibson, allowing Jamie Mackie to score in a 2017 clash with Queens Park Rangers, and spilling a tame Glenn Wheelan shot to round off a 3-0 beat-down at the hands of Aston Villa earlier this season.

Darren Randolph warms up for Middlesbrough | Photo Credit: Evening Gazette

Middlesbrough’s number 23, however, has undoubtedly kept his side in more games than he has cost them, with some outstanding shot-stopping. This season alone, saves from Bradley Dack at Ewood Park and
a double-stop when Leeds United were bearing down on the North Stand net at the Riverside has resulted in three extra points for Tony Pulis’ side.

While Randolph is impressive for Boro, how do his numbers stack up against the other ‘keepers in England’s second tier?

On the face of it Randolph has the most clean sheets – Sheffield United’s Dean Henderson has three less clean sheets than the Middlesbrough stopper’s 16 – and Pulis’ team have conceded 24 goals in 34 games. This means that the Teessiders have kept a clean sheet in 47.1% of their matches*. A quite amazing statistic.

Manchester United loanee Dean Henderson celebrates to the crowd | Photo Credit: Daily Express

To go along with this, his competitors for the league’s ‘golden glove’ Randolph is ahead of Henderson, Costel Pantilimon from Notts Forest and Stoke City’s Jack Butland in saves per minute, (128) total saves (81) and saves per goal (4.26)**

While if you ask the average Championship fan who the best goalkeeper in the division is, they may well say Butland. The Potter’s stopper – who was involved in England’s World Cup run to the semi-finals – the statistics may suggest that the his former Birmingham City teammate has the better of him, with 14 games left in the campaign.

*Statistic from transfermarkt.com
**Statistic from Squawaka.com

Views from the Holgate Podcast Episode Four: Newport County incident and Leeds United preview with Alex Royal

The Views from the Holgate podcast is back this week with a special interview with Middlesbrough fan Alex Royal. Alex was one of the 400 fans who traveled to Newport for the FA Cup replay and witnessed some unseemly scenes between Boro fans and players. Alex gave his point of view and addressed some of the news coming out about the incident in the days since it happened.

Views from the Holgate Podcast Episode Two: Tractor Boys Triumph and Aitor Nostalgia

Dom and Jake are back for another episode of the VftH x Boro Rants podcast! Since the last episode Boro have drawn to Swansea and Hull and beaten Ipswich and Preston, the latter in the cup.

The two give their feelings over Boro’s performances as well as their opinions on Boro’s third kit and the lack of options Pulis puts on his bench. They also give predictions for Nottingham Forest at home, which sees the return of Aitor Karanka to the Riverside.