Michael Bailey: Boro v Norwich - A tale of very different Championship promotion hopefuls

Ex-City star James Maddison (right), at the Riverside Stadium last season. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images

Ex-City star James Maddison (right), at the Riverside Stadium last season. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images

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In his weekly column, Norwich City correspondent Michael Bailey looks at this weekend's clash between Middlesbrough and the Canaries, and two very different Championship promotion contenders.

Middlesbrough's promotion assault under Tony Pulis hasn't been without its challenges - both on and off the field. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus ImagesMiddlesbrough's promotion assault under Tony Pulis hasn't been without its challenges - both on and off the field. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images

Fortunately it wasn’t only the flashing floodlight show on the cusp of kick-off that lit up Norwich City’s previous trip to the Riverside Stadium.

Like a friend who disappeared for a year to explore the wilds of London and returned with only a flashy yet impractical gadget bag, 24,084 expectant supporters and plenty of empty seats dazzled and dimmed in the light show that was supposed to pump up the crowd.

Ultimately, it all dissipated in the misty air – bowing instead to a genuine spark on the pitch, as James Maddison turned a rare piece of Marley Watkins involvement into something more productive; bending home a beauty just 13 minutes later.

With 77 minutes of rearguard action done City’s 1-0 win made it 15 points from their opening 10 games, took them level with Boro in a lofty 10th spot and left both sides with hope that better was yet to come.

For one, it did – maybe later than some at the time hoped, but also far sooner than expected.

As for Middlesbrough, their crossroads has come 18 months and one managerial change later – with a two-week break that dares only alter the recent Championship narrative in a positive direction.

Garry Monk has been long since ditched – with Tony Pulis’ appointment, aptly on Boxing Day 2017, confirming what Boro’s finances have since underlined: it’s all or nothing this season.

With a sizeable nod to the excellent Swiss Ramble football blog, Boro’s accounts for the 2017-18 season confirmed a £16m or 25pc reduction in wage bill and a £6m loss – the latest instalment of £125m losses in the club’s previous years. Indeed while Boro’s player sales have been significant, they still shelled out more – £66m – on player purchases last term.

Boro’s outstanding debt of £101m was behind only Blackburn’s 2016-17 Championship figure when confirmed earlier this season – most owed to owner Steve Gibson, yet the credit facility of owing £56m in transfer fees is still likely to come to a head this summer if they don’t make it back to the Premier League and their parachute payments finally end.

And none of that includes the most likely not-inexpensive arrival of John Obi Mikel.

It’s a stark note of the choice Middlesbrough have made, to push the boat out for a top-flight return in their second and final season of parachute payments.

Norwich City opted for something different, failing in their first season and opting to prepare for their future in the second – ultimately propelling them to the position they are in now, in their first season without Premier League revenue since the 2010-11 campaign.

Boro’s wages to turnover ratio last season was 79pc, off income of £74m. Norwich’s was 68pc from £62m. Those are the first and third highest revenue figures in the second tier.

Meanwhile another play-off contender in the shape of seventh-placed Preston North End and their bottom three revenue figure of £13m, clocked an unstable ratio of 100pc – a nod that even the clubs excelling beyond their budgets and against bigger fish, are still pushing the boat as far as possible if not far further.

PNE’s wage bill of £15m last season was £4m shy of Ipswich Town’s total – again making the point that money is far from everything in the wilds of Championship football.

Only Boro’s outstanding debt figure for 2017-18 tops what the Tractor Boys owe (£95m), and it’s fair to say such ‘investment’ is nowhere near guaranteeing performances and progress on the football pitch. So says the current table.

It’s this desperation at other clubs that Daniel Farke has spoken about on many occasions. The weight of having to earn promotion through financial necessity, rather than the thrill of the chase and sporting glory.

Which force is stronger will go a long way to sorting out who makes the summer jump from second tier to top flight – especially for Norwich City.

And when the Canaries and Pulis’ seasoned professionals do battle on Saturday night, remember the two poles they’ve headed from as they follow their collision course. Promotion or bust.

Much like man of the match awards being dished out on 82 minutes, there’s a lot not to like about the EFL’s Championship player and team of the season gong nominations – given we are still plenty of weeks away from anything being sorted.

On the team of the season’s manager, it is hard to argue with the job Chris Wilder has done at Sheffield United. Over a few seasons now, Wilder has turned a modest budget into a fearsome Championship machine.

Farke’s efforts still appear to blow Wilder’s out of the water – but ultimately it’s another award that won’t carry anything like the euphoria of watching their respective sides earn Premier League promotion.

For the latest Norwich City news and opinion follow Michael Bailey on the following channels…

Michael Bailey on Twitter @michaeljbailey

Michael Bailey on Facebook @mbjourno

Michael Bailey on Instagram @mrmichaeljbailey

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