Gary O’Neil appears to have played his last game for Middlesbrough, who are looking to avoid triggering a £1million clause in his contract. O’Neil was left off the squad that beat Plymouth 2-0 on Easter Monday, and it has become apparent that it was for non-footballing reasons.
The saga began when an official from O’Neil’s previous club Portsmouth suggested that Middlesbrough were trying to renegotiate the transfer agreement between the two clubs. Under the terms of the transfer, Portsmouth are due £1million after O’Neil has played 100 games for Boro.
Middlesbrough Chief Executive Keith Lamb appeared to deny the rumours before the Plymouth game:
"I'm surprised by the comments attributed to a Portsmouth spokesman.
"All of our payments to Portsmouth related to Gary's transfer are up to date and I can assure the club and their administrator that should any further payments become due under the terms of the transfer then we will, of course, honour them."
However, having played in the 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace O’Neil has now played in 99 games, and his agent Eric Walters revealed that losing his place in the team was not related to injury.
"I wasn't privy to the contract made between Portsmouth and Middlesbrough when Gary was brought in"
"But it does seem that a business decision has been made to ensure that future payments due to Portsmouth aren't triggered because as far as I am aware Gary O'Neil is fit and available for selection. He's not injured."
It now seems likely that O’Neil, who is Middlesbrough’s first team captain, will miss the remaining four games of the season. An exit at the end of the season also seems inevitable, if Boro are determined to avoid paying £1million to cash strapped Portsmouth.
O’Neil is one of the few remaining high earners from Middlesbrough’s Premier League days, and has regularly being the subject of transfer rumours linking him with a move away from the Riverside. He has performed well in his 34 games this season and with his wife reportedly unhappy in the North-East, a move away will not come as a surprise.
His departure looks set to be part of a major overhaul of the Boro Squad with Strachan quoted as saying he intends to bring in a lot of new faces over the summer, "I won't put a figure on many players I want to bring in but it will be quite a few”.
Fans of the club will be hoping that this is not the start of a trend and that football and not financial motives are behind the transfer dealings of the summer.