TEAM PREVIEW: Middlesbrough – Craig Hignett expects tougher challenge this season

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Middlesbrough suffered one of the worst pains any football league side can go through in a season, a loss in the Championship play-off final. After a season that promised so much, Middlesbrough were convincingly swept aside by Norwich City at Wembley but have wasted no time in setting themselves up for the new season, bring Stewart Downing back to the club from the Premier League.

Last Season: Championship (4th)

Manager: Aitor Karanka

 

Squad

GKs: Connor Ripley, Dimi Konstantopoulos, Tomas Mejias
DFs: Damia Abella, George Friend, Daniel Ayala, Ben Gibson, Alex Baptiste, James Husband, Rhys Williams, Tomas Kalas, Andre Bennett, Jonathan Woodgate
MFs: Grant Leadbitter, Adam Clayton, Lee Tomlin, Stewart Downing, Mustapha Carayol, Adam Reach, Emilio Nsue, Albert Adomah, Adam Forshaw, Diego Fabbrini
FWs: Kike, Cristian Stuani, Bradley Fewster, Yanic Wildschut

 

Transfers

In: Alex Baptiste (Bolton Wanderers), Stewart Downing (West Ham United), Tomas Kalas (Chelsea – Loan), Diego Fabbrini (Watford – Loan)

Out: David Atkinson (Carlisle United – Loan), Ryan Brobbel (Released), Seb Hines (Released), Emmanuel Ledesma (Rotherham United), Dean Whitehead (Huddersfield Town), Luke Williams (Scunthorpe United)

 

First Six: Preston North End (A), Bolton Wanderers (H), Derby County (A), Bristol City (H), Sheffield Wednesday (A), MK Dons (H)

Likely Lineup: (4-2-3-1) Konstantopoulos – Kalas, Ayala, Gibson, Friend – Clayton, Leeadbitter – Downing, Tomlin, Adomah – Stuani

 

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A word from…Craig Hignett

On moving into the Premier League I’d come from Crewe where I’d had a really good time under Dario Gradi but I really enjoyed my time at Middlesbrough. It was new, it was exciting, it was different and it was all I wanted.

But Middlesbrough were struggling when I went it and from November onwards it was really tough, I learnt a hell of a lot in that time and it stood me in good stead for the future.

On the ups and downs I don’t think you can sum it all up, everything I wanted to do as a kid I got to do at Middlesbrough. Play in the top division, play in cup finals and play with some of the best in the world.

It was such a mad time, we had a couple of years in the second division after the relegation in 1993 but when Robbo came in that’s when it all exploded. The club just rocketed out of nowhere, we were promoted in his first season, Nick Barmby came in and then it was Ravenelli, Juninho, Emerson, anyone could walked through the door, even Paul Gascoigne!

We had so many international players who were household names, it was massively exciting for the club and possibly the most exciting in its history. They’ve had the likes of Boksic, Mendieta and others since too, it’s been incredible.

On Wembley It was fantastic. The FA Cup final was tough because we’d been relegated the week before at Leeds and had a points deduction. I remember walking about and thinking it was a dream, something you’ve thought of since you were a kid but looking back it was a wasted opportunity, we weren’t in the right frame of mind to win that game.

I don’t think we had the best team spirit that season, there was a massive divide right through the club but we got to three cup finals in a row! The League Cup, the FA Cup final and then we got back to the League Cup final again after we were relegated. A team that does that shouldn’t be flirting with relegation, we should have been top 10. We had goals in the team, we had some unbelievable results against top teams but we didn’t have team spirit, that wasn’t good.

On the chairman He’s been unbelievable for the club, first and foremost he’s a local man who loves the football club. He’s ambitious, he keeps putting money in and he’s spent big again this season to make sure the club get promoted. He doesn’t just took about things, he does them. They’ve been out of the Premier League seven years now and he’s done his utmost every year to get Middlesbrough back there.

On last seasonThe second half of last season let them down, the away form dropped off and when they went behind they didn’t win games.

They should have gone up last season from where they were at Christmas with the squad they had, it’s a tough one to take, they didn’t turn up in the play-off final either, they just didn’t get going.

On this seasonStewart Downing’s an incredible signing, they’ve spent big money on Stuani and they’re linked with Jordan Rhodes for well over £10m. They’ve strengthened what they had last year and that means the squad is better than the one they had.

But Derby have spent money, the teams coming down will be strong and competitive, it’s a really tough league this year and Middlesbrough need to get off to a good start. I was still assistant last year and we had a stuttering start, we won the opening day and then lost a couple before going on an unbelievable run.

It was there for the taking last year, there wasn’t one team that stood out as the best, literally anyone could have won it and it would have only taken 2 or 3 more wins for Middlesbrough to go up.

With the new TV deal this is the year to get promoted but a lot of chairmen will be thinking the same. They’ll be thinking it’s worth having a right go this year to get into the Premier League and walk straight into that money. But if it doesn’t happen, you’re left with having to cut the wage bill down next summer!

 

The Offside Rule Podcast Prediction: There’s absolutely no reason why Middlesbrough couldn’t, and shouldn’t, go up this season. They’ve got arguably the best squad, a great coach and have the financial strength to improve over the summer. Get off to a good start and they’ve got a superb chance of a return to the promised land.

Key Player: Stewart Downing – He’s an easy enough suggestion but Downing is a fantastic signing for Middlesbrough. A player still more than good enough for the Premier League should and could be the difference for ‘Boro this season.

One to Watch: Christian Stuani – Another new foreign addition for Middlesbrough this season. Over £3m has been parted with to bring the Uruguayan international to the Riverside and big things will be expected.

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