If ever a football manager appeared in need of catharsis, it would surely be Tony Mowbray. With his mumbling, nasal voice and hunched gait, the Middlesbrough boss does not immediately seem the man to lift a team from doldrums. Yet beneath the unassuming exterior lies a dynamic manager breathing new life into a hitherto broken club.
Prior to Mowbray’s return, Gordon Strachan’s Boro plummeted as low as 20th in the Championship after being billed as pre-season favourites for promotion. With a raft of Scottish imports failing to perform on Teesside, the board turned to the former club captain to stave off the threat of relegation. It was a risky move, with Mowbray having endured a torrid spell at Celtic following his relegation with West Bromwich Albion. Despite indifferent early performances, the Riverside club rallied to finish 12th after a five-match winning run.
Despite a number of high-profile departures in the transfer window, this season has seen that form continue, with Boro making their best start to the season since 2000-01. Indeed, the shift in playing style seen under Mowbray can be at least partially attributed to the departure of the disappointing Kris Boyd. While Boyd’s abilities as a poacher are undoubted after his record-breaking spell at Rangers, the striker’s lack of mobility often contributed to the turgid nature of Middlesbrough’s play under Strachan.
Now, the industrious Scott McDonald is charged with making space for the wing play of a rejuvenated Marvin Emnes, currently the club’s top scorer. The former Holland youth international is finally realising the potential which his £3 million move from Sparta Rotterdam suggested, with the pacy winger at last playing with confidence. The defence, meanwhile, has been boosted by the emergence of athletic young left back Joe Bennett, who was ostracised under Strachan.
Startlingly, the two teams seemingly best equipped to challenge Mowbray’s revitalised unit are sides just promoted from League One. Gustavo Poyet’s Brighton have taken their early-season opponents by storm, playing a swaggering brand of attacking football at the new American Express Stadium in Falmouth. Alongside Scotland international Craig Mackail-Smith, former Valencia star Vicente Rodgriguez could be another transfer coup for the Seagulls if the 38-times capped Spaniard can stay fit.
Brighton’s south coast counterparts, Southampton, also look like convincing contenders for successive promotions under Nigel Adkins. Irish forward David Connolly is enjoying an Indian summer while young winger Adam Lallana injects pace and creativity into the side. Midfielder Jack Cork, who enjoyed a fine spell on loan at Burnley last season, also looks a bargain at £750,000 from Chelsea.
With Sam Allardyce’s West Ham United also looking ominous, it looks as if the battle for automatic promotion to the Premier League could once again develop into a pulsating contest.
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