Middlesbrough’s current position would have been unthinkable four years ago.
After seven years of building and then rebuilding, 2016 was the year that the Teessiders finally made their return to the Premier League.
It was a painful experience in the second tier that saw the club rethink its approach from top to bottom with the intention of building on a long-term, sustainable template which would see the club gradually build from the academy set-up to the senior team.
However when the Teessiders returned to the glitz and glamour of the Premier League, it seems that this carefully thought out plan was swiftly abandoned.
Returning to the top flight should have been the start of an exciting new era for the club, but instead it began the downward spiral which sees Middlesbrough battling to stop themselves from dropping into the third tier for the first time since the 80s.
Aitor Karanka was the face of Middlesbrough’s newly-built success but things were far from rosy under the Spaniard who had a number of high profile spats with Steve Gibson and the club’s hierarchy.
The Premier League campaign, despite all of the work that had gone into securing it, was an unmitigated disaster with a string of questionable decisions leaving the wheels to come off in spectacular fashion.
Steve Gibson threw plenty of money at the return to the Premier League, and spent even more the following season as he signalled the club’s intent to ‘smash the Championship’ with high profile signings who could get the club back into the top flight at the first attempt.
It was an expensive gamble and one that supporters had reservations about after what had happened last time they faced the drop.
After moving on almost every player who signed in 2016, the summer of 2017 saw the club spend around £50million on the likes of Britt Assombalonga, Martin Braithwaite, Ashley Fletcher, Darren Randolph and others.
All of these signings were exciting for the fans, but represented a high-risk approach that resembled a ‘promotion or bust’ scenario.
Middlesbrough reached the play-offs in 2018, but were forced into selling first team regulars such as Adama Traore, Ben Gibson and Patrick Bamford as the reality of the club’s stay in the Championship started to sink in.
The club’s carefully thought out transfer strategy of the previous years was now a distant memory, with Middlesbrough signing players to suit Garry Monk’s free-flowing attacking style in the summer of 2017, before making a dramatic u-turn and building a defence-minded unit that would help Tony Pulis to take a different approach to getting out of the league.
However after falling short last term, Middlesbrough were left in a disastrous spot of bother last summer as the club’s true position was revealed.
Such was the over-spending in their first two years back in the Championship, Jonathan Woodgate inherited an impossible situation last summer as he was tasked with cutting costs to ensure that the club complied with Profitability and Sustainability rules over a three-year period.
In short, Woodgate was given minimal funds to improve the squad while facing the prospect of losing most of his key players within his first 12 months at the club.
Martin Braithwaite and Stewart Downing were moved on last summer, before Darren Randolph was sold in January.
But the biggest blow is still to come.
Middlesbrough have seven first team regulars out of contract this summer – Daniel Ayala, George Friend, Ryan Shotton, Jonny Howson, Adam Clayton, Marvin Johnson and Rudy Gestede.
While it hasn’t been confirmed who is staying and who will leave, the fact that all of these players either joined the club or signed new deals around the time of the Premier League campaign suggests that they could be on wages more suited to a top flight side.
Given Middlesbrough’s lowly position in the Championship, it seems implausible that these players – barring perhaps one or two – could still be at the club next term.
Such a high number of out of contract players is a particularly risky game for the club to play, with an uncertain future almost certain to affect the performances of the seven players in a season that has proven to be more difficult than first planned.
Not to mention the value that could be lost by allowing these key assets to leave the club for absolutely nothing.
Middlesbrough find themselves in the Championship relegation zone with 10 games to go, meaning that the club are genuine contenders to drop to League One next term.
The out of contract stars are all top professionals, but it’s a huge risk to rely on players who may have already decided they’re leaving to drag you out of the relegation gutter, but the stark reality is that they’re all that the club has left after such a huge turnover of players in the last four years.
For the club to drop from a seventh-place finish last term to a potential bottom three spot this term just shows how much has gone wrong – and it seems that the chickens are coming home to roost at the Riverside Stadium.
You just hope that the club can stop the rot in the next two months otherwise the club’s rather expensive gamble to get back into the Premier League will have backfired in the most spectacular fashion.