Relegated Premier League clubs have cast giant shadows on the Championship landscape in recent years. Norwich City and Fulham have traded places like Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd while the likes of West Brom and Aston Villa have also tasted the sweet oasis of promotion after relegation from the top flight.
But this time around, with the Canaries early favourites to win the division for the third time in six seasons, there’s an old Premier League side that are seemingly resurgent. Middlesbrough have only enjoyed one top flight season over the last 13 years, but prior to that, they spent 11 consecutive seasons at the top table and now they look set to make a serious challenge not just for promotion, but for the title.
It’s incredibly early days in this summer transfer window - it doesn’t even officially open until tomorrow - but already Middlesbrough have shown their big ambitions. Blackburn Rovers captain Darragh Lenihan has reportedly agreed a deal that will see him move to the Riverside on a free transfer and it is this financial might in this window that should see Boro in the running for some of the Championship’s best players.
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Rovers should have finished in the play-offs, ended up 8th and now Boro, who finished one place above them, have nicked one of their most influential players. Talking of influence in the second tier, managers don’t come much better than Chris Wilder. Tempting him to take over in November, with the club in 14th was a massive coup and now he is being backed in the window.
There’s a real belief around Teesside that he is the man to return Premier League football to the area and having taken Sheffield United from League One to 9th in the Premier League over four seasons, he certainly has the pedigree for the job. It’s difficult to think of a better manager in the Championship.
But Boro’s transfer business depends on the fee they secure for star asset Djed Spence. They’re in an almost unique situation in this division where a player worth £15m+ was out on loan for the entirety of the last campaign. Therefore, from Wilder’s perspective, he won’t be losing out on anything with this expected sale, but instead getting the transfer coffers massively boosted.
With newly-promoted Nottingham Forest and a whole host of Premier League clubs after his signature, Boro can allow a bidding war to take place before accepting the highest offer for the 21-year-old, safe in the knowledge that they have Isiah Jones who is as good, if not better than Spence in that position.
That money should be used to improve a squad that was close to making the top six last term. The likes of Paddy McNair, Jonny Howson and Marcus Tavernier are more than good enough to help with a promotion push, while they have a manager with excellent Premier League connections and they should be able to offer wages to tempt loan signings in from the top flight.
But it is the permanent transfers that will excite Boro fans the most. Dwight Gayle has been hotly linked with a move from Newcastle, and his Championship record is exceptional, having scored 60 goals in 101 appearances and bagged 16 assists along the way. He’s now 32, but his ability to score goals at this level has not diminished. Last time at this level he scored 24 goals for West Brom as they finished in the play-offs, and that level of goalscoring ability will tempt Wilder.
Chelsea left-back Baba Rahman, who was on loan at Reading last season, is also an interest for Wilder, but his lust for Coventry City striker Viktor Gyokeres is undeniable. After the win over the Sky Blues earlier in the season, the former Sheffield United boss said: “I thought Gyokeres at the top of the pitch was as good a centre forward performance I’ve seen in this division all season. And that’s up against Dael [Fry] who we feel is a really good player.”
Now, this summer, he is hoping to fend off Premier League interest to bring him to the club, but it is likely to take the entire Djed Spence fee to pry him away from the CBS Arena. If Boro do sign another one of the Championship’s best this summer, there will be little stopping them on the pitch this term.
Of course, all of these potential signings are so far, just that. But this level of intent from Middlesbrough early on, under this calibre of manager, should see them challenge for the automatic places. 14/1 at Betfred looks like a remarkably generous price that won’t last for long once the transfers start rolling in.
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