Michael Bailey: Mind the gap to City, Boro – in more ways than one
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In his latest weekly column, Norwich City correspondent and PinkUn Show host Michael Bailey looks at Middlesbrough and sees a familiar tale, as well as gladly anticipating the weekend’s return of Carrow Road action.
It was little more than four months ago when they last met but Norwich City have already let go of two starters, while Middlesbrough will rock up at Carrow Road with a different manager to the one in charge at the Riverside Stadium.
The more things change in the Championship, the more it feels like the second tier we all know and love. The one where Boro are desperately scrapping for their first and best chance of an EFL escape following last term’s Premier League relegation.
And the one where City’s second and final season of parachute payments ultimately brought with it an expectation they had little likelihood of matching, alongside bidding for such a substantial longer-term transition.
Canaries supporters will understand exactly what Boro fans are feeling this season, and where the temptation comes from to bring in a manager like Tony Pulis – someone whose past work has often relied upon a bit of backing, and rarely on bringing through the kids.
But then, we’re in danger of comparing his regularly successful survival missions in the Premier League to battling Boro’s way out of the Championship via the top end – and in reality, the former is probably less difficult to achieve.
Back in September, Garry Monk already looked on borrowed time in the north east. The fact he lasted exactly three months beyond City’s excellent 1-0 win on Teesside under the dazzling Boro lights was something of an achievement in itself.
And yes, that victory was thanks to a glorious James Maddison goal. It almost goes without saying.
The pressure following Monk’s switch to Leeds was simple and effective. Boro made big-money signings to cultivate the best talent in one summer, bidding to mould a side that simply had to earn promotion and a swift Premier League return.
It’s now February and Boro have just three points to make up on the top six – albeit a top six where each side appears to have a strong case and significant evidence they will stay the course until May.
Missing out for Middlesbrough will mean either sweating on making it second time around and damn the consequences, or preparing for what a second failure could leave them with – a Premier League wage bill without the football, coverage or finances.
As for Norwich, both Yanic Wildschut’s Cardiff loan move and Cameron Jerome’s sale to Derby have signified where they are headed while Stuart Webber sets about eradicating the expensive wage bill and mistakes of the past.
That work has arguably been accelerated a season ahead of need, given the sobering reality – almost fear – of what the club would look like if they didn’t prepare for next summer; dampening the financial momentum of four out of seven seasons swimming in Premier League gravy.
On Saturday and to most outsiders, City and Middlesbrough will look like two sides on hugely different missions. And maybe in this exact moment, this season, there is a clear gap – much bigger than the one Ipswich fans are often tempted to remind others about.
But from chasing Wembley to spending one horribly indifferent year chasing their tails in the top flight, to bouncing back down and hoping they break nothing in the fall, there will be a familiarity of situation and need running through both sides of Saturday’s Championship game.
And that in itself, should make for an intriguing post-January transfer window afternoon.
• Speaking of the window, there was a distinct lack of angst on show as Norwich City closed their own deadline day at the hugely civilised time of 6.58pm – that in itself may have helped.
Right now, no one can say how successful the new signings will be; whether Glenn Middleton’s sale will prove a bigger missed opportunity than letting a teenage Dion Dublin slip through the net.
But that is part of the fun. And equally, there does seem to be an appetite from most fans to trust in what is happening and where the club are trying to head for – all at a time when season ticket renewals are being discussed over family tables across Norfolk and a little beyond.
With the window closed and no more cup distractions, it does feel like a few of Professor Steve Peters’ chimps have been exercised and City supporters can enjoy a little bit of renewal.
A chance to shake their shoulders out, prepare to see some fresh faces and take in what they can add to the Norwich squad.
That feeling may only last until kick-off. Or it might last longer than most dare anticipate.
And that’s why we will all be there at Carrow Road in mind or spirit, ready and waiting.
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