As an ultimately disappointing season comes to a close for Middlesbrough we take the opportunity to look ahead and try to predict which players will be leaving and which will stay for next year.
Boro started as favourites to win automatic promotion at the start of the year under Gordon Strachan.
However, poor performances led to him walking away from the club after losing 8 of the opening 13 games of the season.
Tony Mowbray came in and has slowly turned the fortunes around, with only 1 loss in the last 11 games.
He now faces the challenge of restructuring the squad which has the biggest wage bill of the division (bigger than QPR and Cardiff combined!).
Jason Steele: Next Year's Number 1?
Jason Steele – A product of the famous Middlesbrough Academy, he has been vulnerable at times but tremendous prospect for the future. He confessed to suffering from a lack of confidence before his injury but says he is back to his best now. He seems certain to be Boro's first choice next year.
Danny Coyne – Has been solid when called upon this season. His experience will be vital to help Steele develop. and good cover should any injuries occur. His wages (as we will see a determining factor in many of the squad's future) are unlikely to break the bank so looks likely to stay as understudy to Steele.
Paul Smith (loan) – Came on an emergency loan when injuries struck the Boro's other keepers, the very young Conor Ripley (Son of former Boro player Stuart) was seen as too inexperienced to cope for a prolonged spell in the first team.
Smith has performed admirably and sured up a somewhat shakey defence. However, the finances of Boro look unlikely to stretch to a third keeper that isn’t a member of the youth team, unless Coyne or Steele move on Smith looks set to go back to Forest.
Joe Bennett: Sensation This Year, but can Boro Hang onto Him?
Joe Bennett – Rising star of the team, fans will be hoping he will stay on but any observant premiership scouts will be keeping a close eye on him, hoping to use Boro’s financial crisis to capture a rising star very cheaply. He will be contesting for Player of the Year alongside Robson, Lita and Arca, and Bennett has my vote. Unfortunately a bid of around the £2m mark would surely see him go.
Jon Grounds – Another youth team product. Grounds spent the first half of the year on loan at Hibs, who appear keen to take him back. He is generally a left-back but has played in the centre when the need has occurred this year. He’d be very useful so as not to expose the young Bennett to too much first team action, but a reasonable bid from Hibs or elsewhere will likely see him move on.
Justin Hoyte – Had an intermittent season and as he’s one of the few to remain from premiership days he is a top wage earner. A must go for Mowbray as his performances have been inconsistent at best, the problem could be finding a club for him. He has a decent pedigree having being brought through the Arsenal youth structure but has never lived up to his potential. Any bid will see him leave.
Seb Hines – A product of the youth team Hines has stepped up in the wake of Wheater’s departure and has performed well. He needs some experience alongside him but will be useful in the coming years. He signed a new two and a half year contract in January so very unlikely to move on.
McManus: One to leave?
Rhys Williams – I’ve included him in the defenders section as that is where he has slotted in since coming back from injury. However, I personally see him as more of a holding midfield player. He lacks the strength of a centre back but on the ball he is exemplary and has the style of a Micheal Carrick. Contracted to the club till 2013 he is another that looks likely to stay and continue his progress having had a torrid injury-plagued year.
Andrew Davies (loan) – Has come back to his home time club at a time of defensive injury crisis. Though he would love to make his move permanent that will probably rely on the future of McManus, if the Scot eases the wage bill by moving on Davies’ experience would be badly needed.
Maxi Haas – having arrived in January he has only made substitute appearances so far, but is adapting his game to the more physical English game, fans will probably see much more of him next term. Having come from Bayern Munich he must have some quality and it remains to be seen how he will adapt to life in the Championship.
Tony McMahon – A loyal servant to the club and one likely to stay. Although not a great full back he is a solid performer and a useful member of the squad, with the likely departure of Hoyte he would be needed next term. His passing and free-kicks have improved greatly in recent weeks and he could play himself into the starting 11 for next year.
Stephen McManus – The most experienced defender at the club and his experience would prove very useful next season. However, he is one of the top wage earners and if a reasonable offer were to come in the club would need to let him go. With most of the rest of the defence being youth team products he would be badly missed, but the books must be balanced and McManus is of premiership quality.
Robson: Can Boro Afford to Keep Him?
Willo Flood – A hard working midfield player who makes up for in effort what he lacks in skill. Has been out injured most of the year and it remains to be seen how he will fit into Mowbray’s style. It seems unlikely that a bid will come in for him so he seems set to be part of the team next year.
Merouane Zemmama – Another of Mowbray’s January recruits and has become a fans favourite with his super sub appearances so far. After he gets his fitness back over the summer he will likely play a pivotal role in the Boro side next season.
Kevin Thomson – One of Strachan’s recruits from Scotland, Thomson was from the more financially reckless Boro days. Although a great player, he has suffered from several injuries at Boro and his high wages will make him one Boro are looking to offload as soon as the transfer window opens, given his quality someone will likely take the gamble on him. His tough tackling style will be missed , but the emergence of Smallwood may fill part of that gap.
Nicky Bailey – Although a regular in the first team this season he has struggled to find the form he found with Charlton in the lower leagues. Having come from the lower division he isn’t one of the top earners and as such Boro could well hang onto him and hope his form improves.
Barry Robson – This is one of the more painful ones for Boro fans. Although a class player and one of the few consistently good players this term, he is likely to leave. His wages will be too high for Mowbray’s new austere regime. He works hard and creates goals frequently and there shouldn’t be too much difficulty in offloading him, but he will leave a gaping hole in the team. The hope is that Zemmama will fill some of the creative void, if Boro can't find the money to keep him.
Arca: The Next Craig Hignett?
Julio Arca – his contract is up in summer and he is a top earner. Even if he had been the best player in the team his future would be uncertain. His form has improved under Mowbray and went on a scoring streak toward the end of the season.Will he turn out to be the next Craig Hignett?
Didier Digard – remember him? He left on loan to Nice at the start of the year but is still on Boro’s books. With his reported £40,000 a week, that would make him the top earner at the club Mowbray will look to move him on permanently as soon as possible.
Andrew Taylor – Came back from loan at Watford and has secured a place on the left wing since. However, his high wages from premiership days combined with Watford’s interest in taking him back looks like he will depart in the summer. Though he has some ability, his lack of pace means he should hbe relatively easy to replace.
Tarmo Kink – the Tallinn Torpedo promised much at the start of the season with skill, pace and a desire to shoot at every given opportunity. However, he has failed to find a place in the starting line up and has managed just a handful starts this term so far. Inconsistency has been his enemy and with a couple of years left on his contract his future seems mainly dependant on an offer coming in for him.
Ritchie Smallwood – Guess what? Another youth team product. Has come into his own at the end of the season, he was given his chance by Mowbray and has seized his opportunity with both hands. Works tirelessly and not afraid to put challenges in, will remind people of Cattermole’s early days, only a little less rash! Although he is unlikely to be a regular next season he could play a role when injuries come to the starting players.
Lita: Will he Still Knock in the Goals Next Year?
Kris Boyd – Mowbray has openly stated that he hopes Boyd succeeds in his loan move to Forest as the club cannot afford to keep him. His huge wages along with disappointing goals returns means he will be the first out of the door if a club is willing to take him. If Forest manage to get a playoff place and get promoted he will likely be signed up, if not other suitors may have to be found.
Scott McDonald – has provided tireless performances time after time this term and before injury struck his fellow forward he was developing a good partnership with Leroy Lita. However, he is another of the clubs top earners and if any sort of offer comes in for him he looks as though he could leave the club.
Leroy Lita – has found his form under Mowbray and is a fans favourite. If the books can be balanced he will be one that Boro look to keep for next season. Though as with all the players if a good enough offer comes in then he will be on his way.
Marvin Emnes – Frozen out under Strachan he has returned to the fold with Mowbray and been given more playing time. He is one you feel has potential to be a very good player but rarely meets that potential. He was a firm favourite with Swansea when he was loaned there earlier in the year and I would not be surprised to see him return there in summer.
Lee Miller – Currently on loan to Scunthorpe and has never produced good performances for Boro who will hope he makes a permanent move elsewhere this summer.
So it looks as though there will be much restructuring at Middlesbrough with a lot of players going and some (hopefully) coming in too.
Here is my predictions of who will go:
To Leave – Arca, Boyd, Miller, Emnes, McDonald, Taylor, Digard, Robson, Thomson, Hoyte and McManus.
Not all for the same reason, but if they all make way some new blood will be needed to support the academy products that remain the core of the team.
And with some of those (Robson and McDonald) I hope I'm wrong as they could spearhead a promotion campaign next year.