Battle of the Backups

Dejan Stojanović is going to be a hell of an answer at future Boro quiz nights.

The Austrian-Macedonian, the last goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet for Middlesbrough before the UK went into lockdown in 2020, has asked to leave the club after only 9 appearances since joining in the 2020 January transfer window.

While Stojanović’s impending departure comes as no surprise, with the ‘keeper not involved in any preseason friendlies so far and having been loaned out to St. Pauli last season, it is another warning sign of the wasteful nature of toing and froing between managers with opposing ideologies.

At a time when money has been tight for the football club, up to £1 million has been squandered on a goalkeeper who never looked or felt like the right fit, although any add-ons have surely not been triggered.

It also puts another name on Neil Warnock’s still lengthy shopping list this summer, with a backup goalkeeper needed to provide competition and cover to Joe Lumley.

The Number 2 role isn’t anywhere near as sexy as the reported moves for South American duo Martin Payero and Rodrigo Muniz but it’s a crucial spot that needs to be filled.

We were all made to bear witness to the result of not having an adequate replacement in the squad as Marcus Bettinelli went unchallenged until the final games, effectively dead rubbers, despite being frankly terrible at his job.

That competition will not be coming from inside the club as Neil Warnock told the press last week that Brad James has suffered a “proper” elbow injury that will keep him out of action for a while. James might’ve forced himself into Warnock’s plans after his play-off heroics for Hartlepool but will face up to six months on the sidelines.

Zach Hemming is already out on loan getting some much needed first team experience at Kilmarnock while Sol Brynn is untested at senior level.

Even though Warnock views Joe Lumley as his Number 1 goalkeeper this season, the stopper only has one real season as the unquestioned first choice under his belt, when he featured 42 times for QPR in 18/19.

That season Lumley kept 14 clean sheets and registered a 68.9 save percentage (amount of shots on target he faced against goals being conceded). That slipped to 62.2% and just 3 clean sheets in 27 games the next year before he was ousted by Liam Kelly and both were then replaced by Seny Dieng.

Warnock has to decide what sort of backup option he wants at the club. Does he want someone who could push Lumley every day on the training ground and really compete for the job, an experienced pro who can impart wisdom to Lumley while being a reliable figure to call upon if needed, or a professional backup that will only play if Lumley is injured or suspended?

The goalkeeping position is one of the prime examples where stats don’t tell the full story.

Clean sheets don’t tell you how fantastic the defence was in front of a ‘keeper or how dominant his team is, save percentages also include shots that were blocked by an outfield player and doesn’t highlight any clangers made, while you can’t truly categorise the ability to organise and instil confidence in a backline.

These are all things that Warnock will have consider, as well as the resources he’ll put into the position, with a number of players still being targeted as part of his promotion push. And no Neil, that doesn’t mean you can just ring Paddy Kenny up because he’ll cost nowt.

That he sees Lumley as his starter as it stands will likely rule out any loan moves for Premier League goalies like Bailey Peacock-Farrell.

Christian Walton has been pushed down the pecking order at Brighton by the signing of Kjell Scherpen from Ajax and the experience of Jason Steele (yes, honestly). The 6ft 5″ stopper is able to leave the Amex this summer, though the Seagulls sneakily triggered a year extension to his contract to guarantee some kind of fee.

The former England U21 international has previous Championship experience from loan spells at Wigan and Blackburn, playing 80 games across both loans, including the full 46 games for Blackburn.

Walton kept 21 clean sheets combined at both sides and had a better save percentage (69.1) than Freddie Woodman (68.4), Neil Etheridge (62.3) and Jack Butland (58.4) in his year at Ewood Park. The extension to his contract might rule him out though due to the fee needed to bring him to Boro while at 25-years-old he may prefer somewhere with guaranteed playing time.

Another ‘keeper who might want to see guaranteed playing time is Keiren Westwood, still a free agent after being released by Sheffield Wednesday, who remains a handy goalie at this level.

The Irish ‘keeper had a better save percentage from his 20 games last season (68.2%) than Adam Davies (67.4) and David Marshall (65.8) who both went to the Euros with their national sides.

With 324 appearances in the Championship, Westwood has a wealth of experience and knowledge that he could pass onto Lumley and he’d be able to push him every day on the training ground. The 36 year old would have to take a knock down on his Sheff Wed wages but at his age, he’d be expected to anyway.

Ørjan Nyland would also have to temper his wage demands to join Boro, with the Norwegian international currently without a club after a brief stint at Norwich. Nyland has been part of two promotion winning sides since arriving in England from FC Ingolstadt, as Norwich won the league last season and Villa clinched promotion in the 19/20 play-off final.

Nyland was actually Villa’s Number 1 to start that season, playing in 23 games, before an Achilles tendon injury ended his campaign. He even deputised for Tom Heaton on seven occasions during the following Premier League season before being allowed to leave once Emi Martinez joined Villa.

On the cheaper side, there are the likes of Luke Daniels and Frank Fielding who have entered the professional backup portion of the careers. Daniels, who acted as cover for Daniel Bentley and David Raya across four seasons at Brentford, with 18 of his 36 appearances for the Bees coming in cup competitions.

Fielding has only played ten games in the past three seasons after being replaced by Niki Mäenpää at Bristol City and being unable to dislodge Bartosz Białkowski from the Millwall team. Both are currently free agents and would be cost-friendly options but may not offer true competition to Lumley.

A reunion with one time loanee Jamal Blackman might combine the best of both worlds for Boro. Blackman has finally escaped the limbo of being one of a thousand players on Chelsea’s books after 8 successive loan moves that have covered Östersunds, Vitesse Arnhem, Bristol Rovers and Sheffield United to name a few.

Scorer of a penalty in the marathon shoot-out at Anfield in the League Cup, Blackman has matured since those days into a capable shot-stopper who can also smash the ball downfield which fits into Warnock’s desire to move the ball up the pitch faster this year.

Again, it isn’t the most glamourous of areas that needs addressing but it’s one that needs to be sorted quickly. The opening game of the season is less than a fortnight away and we’re currently a freak injury or red card from relying on Sol Brynn or an unsettled Stojanović.

Has anyone got Tomás Mejías’s number?

Photo Credits: Gazette Boro/Teesside Live, Ashley Allen, Getty Images, AMA

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