Paul Newman: Scottish question still hangs over Strachan's Boro
Monday 20 September 2010
A second home win in the space of five days has helped to lift spirits at Middlesbrough, but the big question about Gordon Strachan's recruitment strategy still hangs over the Riverside Stadium. Are the best in Scotland good enough to take Boro into the top division south of the border? When Kevin Thomson completed a £2m move from Rangers in the summer he joined five other Old Firm exiles on Teesside, Strachan having previously recruited Kris Boyd from Rangers and Scott McDonald, Barry Robson, Stephen McManus and Willo Flood from his former club, Celtic.
All six were in the starting line-up for Boro's first match of this season, a 3-1 home defeat to Ipswich Town, but only three – McDonald, Robson and McManus – played in Saturday's 3-1 victory over Reading. Thomson and Flood are injured, while Boyd, leading scorer for Rangers in all his five seasons with the club, again sat on the bench, having been dropped for the midweek win over Burnley after scoring once in his first seven appearances.
If talk of an early-season crisis is receding – Boro took only four points from their first five matches but have six from their last two – the debate over the relative merits of the Scottish Premier League and the Championship will continue. Rangers' draw at Manchester United in the Champions League last week showed Scottish football in a better light, but the wider picture is different.
Craig Brown, currently managing in the SPL with Motherwell, had two years in the Championship with Preston. "I always said when I was there that Preston would be the third best team in Scotland," the former Scotland manager said. "Preston are a lowly team in the Championship in terms of attendance and salaries. We finished in the middle of the league both times, but in my opinion we would have been good enough to finish behind Rangers and Celtic in Scotland.
"Just look at the attendances. When I was at Preston we averaged 14,000 or more. Hearts are the third best supported team in Scotland and they have an average of about 12,000. Sheffield Wednesday are in the division below the Championship and they're getting crowds of more than 20,000. That's unbelievable up here.
"The Championship is a harder, tougher league. For a start you have 46 games, which is a really demanding schedule. You have to be strong physically. The levels of physical fitness are better than those in Scotland. It's quicker. It's a better league than the SPL. I'm not knocking the Scottish game, but the best players in Scotland nearly always end up in England if they don't go to Rangers or Celtic."
Jim O'Brien, who joined Barnsley in the summer, Leeds' Ross McCormack, Bristol City's David Clarkson and Derby County's Stephen Pearson are among the former Motherwell men currently earning a living in the Championship.
"I noticed Mark McGhee, Aberdeen's manager, being quoted as saying he doesn't even look at the Championship because he can't afford Championship players," Brown said, pointing out that the Dons' recent recruits have included Scott Vernon (from Colchester United), Rory McArdle (Rochdale) and Yoan Folly (Plymouth). "And Aberdeen are one of the top four or five clubs in Scotland." Nevertheless, Brown believes that the Rangers and Celtic sides would be good enough to win promotion if they were playing in the Championship this season. "I can't imagine they would ever join the English league, but I'm sure that within a few years they would be in the top six in the Premier League if they did.
"It all comes down to television money. The bottom team in the Premier League get £30m a year. The top teams get £40m or more. Rangers get about £1.5m or £2m. Give Rangers the same resources as Blackburn or Bolton, for example, and they would be right up there at the top in England. So would Celtic."
As for Middlesbrough, Brown believes it is only a matter of time before Strachan's men come good. " The players he's brought in from Scotland are good players. It's early at the moment. I can imagine them getting on a run. That's what you need to do in that league and you can go from nowhere to being promoted. I'm astonished they're not flying high, but ... I'll be very surprised if they don't finish at least in a play-off place."
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