Nunthorpe native Jonathan Woodgate makes his managerial debut as hometown team Middlesbrough open the new EFL Championship season at promoted Luton Town on Friday, 2 August.
Although the hosting Hatters are also under new management and now back at second tier level for the first time in 12 years, plenty of media focus will be on the away side. Woodgate embarks on being Boro boss after an injury-plagued playing career and time among the Riverside outfit’s backroom staff.
Middlesbrough chief Steve Gibson is widely considered to be one of the best chairmen to work for in football, but even he had to take note of disaffected supporters who wanted a change from Tony Pulis.
Boro failed to make the Championship play-offs under the veteran Welsh manager, who endured familiar and longstanding criticism of his approach and playing style while on Teesside. What sort of manager will Woodgate be?
It’s too early to say, but he is definitely not Tony Pulis. For all lows of his career on the field, he played in the Champions League with Leeds United, in Spain with Real Madrid – where he infamously scored an own goal and got sent off on his debut – and lifted the League Cup while at Spurs.
As a former Middlesbrough player of the year, Woodgate is sure to receive more affection from fans than his predecessor. One of the stranger things to happen in this summer of change at the Riverside is brother-in-law Stewart Downing leaving Boro for Blackburn Rovers on a free.
Leaving family to one side, Woodgate inherits a small but solid looking squad from Pulis. There is more functionality than flair there but, after two previous failed tilts at promotion, parachute payments have dried up.
If it’s to be third time lucky, and bet365 are 4/1 that Middlesbrough do go up to the top flight this coming campaign, then Woodgate will have to do it while developing players and by being clever in the market.
At a time when local rivals Newcastle United are being cut for relegation in the Premier League betting after Rafa Benitez’s departure from Tyneside, and Sunderland are made favourites for promotion out of the third tier, local bragging rights can’t really be established.
Unless they get drawn together in one of the domestic cups, there’ll be no Northeast derbies for Boro fans to look forward to this year. This entire season hinges on the club’s bid for a Premier League return.
If recent years are anything to go by, then less fancied teams – including those managed by hometown heroes – have earned promotion and that gives everyone connected with Middlesbrough hope. Huddersfield Town were fancies for relegation in 2016-17 yet against all odds went up via the play-offs.
Cardiff City, meanwhile, were outsiders – albeit with a manager proven when it comes to Championship promotion in Neil Warnock – in 2017-18 that finished in the top two. Even Sheffield United under Steel City native Chris Wilder weren’t exactly top of the list to go up this past season, yet the Blades proved sharper than everyone apart from Norwich City.
Woodgate will need his fair share of luck if he is to emulate David Wagner, Warnock and Wilder. A good start is essential too if he is to pull the Teesside team and its fans back together and up into the Premier League again.