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Thursday, 26 August 2010

Some Like It Scot

If you’d asked us at the end of last season about the summer’s activity in the transfer market – and had we been feeling particularly facetious – we’d have probably said something along the lines of: ‘Oh, City will pay £30mn for any English midfielders going, as well as second-tier European footballers, United will be so bereft of funds they’ll get a homeless man in on the cheap and Gordon Strachan will answer everyone’s question about how the SPL would fare in England by signing 12 more players from Rangers and Celtic’.

With Sky Sports News’ TV event of the century* (aka the transfer window closing) now less than a week away, our hypothetical nonsense has turned out to be remarkably prescient. Naturally, City splashed the cash. Slightly unnaturally, United gambled on a player no one had a) ever seen play or b) ever heard of. Perhaps most surprisingly of all though, Strachan displayed staggering conviction that buying the whole of Scotland was the way to get out of the Championship. It’s an unusually overt approach to squad-building and reduces the much-vaunted conveyor belt of talent at the Riverside to little more than a bit-part player.

Steve Gibson, so often the good guy where Middlesbrough are concerned, could well be faced with a dilemma here. It is certainly a test of his footballing philosophy. It turns out you can do things ‘the right way’ by supporting your manager, but you have sort of made your bed if your manager doesn’t want to do things ‘the right way’ by vindicating your expenses on a reserve team and youth academy. On the surface, it’s a very expensive cross-border experiment.

But is that really what’s happening at Boro? When did the club’s youth players do any more but augment Gareth Southgate’s bigger money (and frankly, a bit crap) signings before being sold – not that you can blame the club for that, mind you – and stripping the squad of its better prospects. Strachan has rather busied himself replacing the under-achieving big earners – Mido and Jeremie Aliadiere have left the club – and trusts the incoming Scottish community to foster more desire in the dressing room.

By his own admission, the Boro manager’s philosophy is that a successful side isn’t “just about ability, it's about hunger and drive, about really hating to lose”. And if any league in the world can foster a hatred of losing, it’s the SPL. This sounds odd, but let me explain. If you play for Rangers or Celtic, as six of Strachan’s Scottish signings did, you are expected to win the league. Every year. It’s embarrassing if you don’t, particularly as you only really have to beat one other team. Second in the SPL is nowhere, save for the ignominy of being beaten in Champions League qualifying rounds by 'pub teams', as the victorious side of Glasgow routinely dubs the other's conquerers. So you can bet messrs Boyd, Thomson, McManus, Flood, McDonald and Robson are all pretty disgusted by losing, so rarely does it happen to them.

Strachan has brought plenty of experience to a league that doesn’t have much respect for blooding academy prospects, believing his signings are more than up to the task: “When you have played with the Old Firm that is character-testing. Anywhere else is probably like being on holiday."

From the way Boro started the season though, it seemed like the whole squad was still there. A 3-1 humbling at home to Ipswich was the worst possible start, exacerbated by their Carling Cup exit at the hands of Millwall. However, a goalless draw with Leicester and Sunday’s 1-0 win over Sheffield United has lifted Boro to 10th in the very early Championship table. The club have much to do to try and maintain a challenge at the top and Strachan’s dogged pursuit of his countrymen, as well as his belief in the quality of top SPL players will come under intense scrutiny over the next nine months.

There is little to suggest, though, that players and manager won’t be able to withstand the pressure. At the very least, their first league win is out of the way. Kris Boyd has got his first goal and remains one of the favourites to be the division’s top scorer. Even now, Strachan’s shopping isn’t finished. He is now in the market for another goalkeeper following Brad Jones’s departure to Liverpool and is chasing Dundee United’s Craig Conway. The philosophy is well-championed, but is also a bold gamble. Only a top six finish will truly vindicate it. Rob MacDonald

*Just a note on SSN by the way. Rather than basing the entire channel on Minority Report, they should probably, to prevent the format becoming a horrible caricatured parody of itself, actually consider launching a feature called ‘Minority Report’, in which they can report on some sports that aren’t the Premier League, transfer rumours or what Graeme Swann’s just said on Twitter.

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