27 June 2020 10:40
A PREVIOUSLY well-established Premier League club fighting for its survival in the lower reaches of the Championship. A squad containing a smattering of former top-flight stars, all earning salaries that are no longer really sustainable. A manager who did not start the season, but who has been parachuted in to dig his side out of a mess. For Middlesbrough, read Stoke City. When the two clubs go head-to-head at the Bet365 Stadium this afternoon, it really will be a case of two fallen giants desperately trying to stem the slide from former glories.
Think two bald men fighting over a comb, and you will not be far wrong. Stoke's decline started a year after Middlesbrough's as the Potters were sitting comfortably in 13th position when Boro were relegated from the Premier League in 2017. They could only finish 19th a season later though, and since dropping into the second tier, they have found it impossible to secure an immediate return. Instead, like Boro, they have found themselves scrapping for survival in the bottom half of the Championship while wrestling with the continued financial fall-out from their demotion from the top-flight. On paper, with the likes of Jack Butland, Ryan Shawcross, Tom Ince, Joe Allen and James McClean in their ranks, they should be fighting for promotion. In reality, however, they remain a club in transition, still trying to come to terms with their diminished status. Again, the parallels with Middlesbrough are all too clear. "They've got a hell of a squad haven't they, Stoke," said new Boro boss Neil Warnock, who will begin the 18th managerial stint of his much-travelled career when he strides out at an empty Bet365 Stadium this afternoon. "I think of Stoke similarly as I do Middlesbrough really, as teams that should both be in the Premier League. "I've always thought that, and it is sad to see them both scrapping for survival. They will both come again - they are both big clubs - but we just have to concentrate on ourselves. "We won't be given any presents at Stoke, whatever we get we will have to earn and we have to be ready to battle and die for the cause." Stoke start this afternoon's game two points and three places ahead of Boro in the table, having salvaged a point from last weekend's return from lockdown at Reading courtesy of a stoppage-time equaliser from Nick Powell. The Potters are on a five-game unbeaten run either side of the lockdown period, but their chairman, Peter Coates, still expects the Championship survival battle to go to the wire. Coates remains a close friend of former Middlesbrough manager Tony Pulis, and has been watched this week's appointment of Warnock as Jonathan Woodgate's successor with more than a passing interest. "He's been around the block and has a good record in keeping teams up and getting teams up," said Coates.