Not Another Rebuild – Finding The One

Another summer, another rebuild for Middlesbrough Football Club. Is that the fourth or fifth in a row? It’s hard to keep count.

Also, it certainly feels like we’ve been saying this for five years in a row, but no matter how many “rebuilds” the club has been through, this HAS to be the one that they get right.

This is Chris Wilder’s and Kieran Scott’s first genuine attempt to shape the first team into a modern, forward-thinking outfit without the problems that a January transfer window full of brinkmanship and desperation brings.

The manager has made it clear that there will be a large turnover in the playing squad, as was to be expected.

The quality and suitability within the squad was not at the correct levels to maintain a promotion push so this summer will be focused on addressing several areas of need and making sure that Wilder has a squad full of players with the right attributes to succeed in delivering his plans for the team.

Another thing that Wilder, Scott and the recruitment team must get right this summer is in bringing a genuine #1 goalkeeper to the club. Joe Lumley is not good enough to start on a regular basis in the Championship.

It’s as simple as that. He cost us too many games and completely lost the faith of the fans. With career back-up Luke Daniels his only competition, Lumley was kept in the firing line for too long and it took some genuinely shocking mistakes for him to be dropped.

Some of the blame for the goalkeeping situation has to lie firmly at the feet of those who oversaw last summer’s transfer window. The club signed two back-up goalkeepers to compete for the starting job and it showed.

That is an error they can’t afford to make again with expectations next season firmly fixed on promotion, through the play-offs or automatically.

Whoever is brought in to protect the Boro net has to be a ‘keeper that is a tried and tested #1. They also need to be capable with the ball at their feet to fulfil the sweeper-keeper role in Wilder’s system, something Lumley won’t be asked to do again in his career.

Finally, just for all of our own sanity, it’d be great if the next man in between the sticks for Boro is a permanent fixture. A goalkeeper that can be here for 3-5 years and make no glaring fuck ups would be fantastic, so hopefully our prayers aren’t answered by a loan deal, otherwise we’ll be having this conversation again in 12 months.

Ticking off those three key boxes will be a tough challenge for everyone at the club because other clubs don’t want to easily give up good goalkeepers. It’s also arguably the most difficult position to scout because it’s such a specialist position in such a fluid game. Simply flicking through statistics and watching a handful of games doesn’t cut it when analysing goalkeepers.

Yes, save percentage can help weigh up a ‘keeper’s shot-stopping ability as can comparing the shots they’ve faced to goals actually conceded but there’s no statistic that can tell you how good a ‘keeper is at organising a defence or how comfortable they make a fan base and those things matter.

Someone who may tick those boxes is Manchester City’s highly-rated Gavin Bazunu. HANG ON, WAIT A MINUTE, WE SAID NO LOANS. I know. Calm down.

While Bazunu is seen by some at City as the long-term replacement to Ederson, it’s also become accepted that the Irishman wants to play first-team football and he may be allowed to leave in the summer, with buy-back clauses or first refusals included in any deal.

Bazunu burst into the spotlight after viral moments when representing the Republic of Ireland during the autumn – first saving a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty before making a world-class save from Luxembourg’s Olivier Thill shot that deflected off Jamie Cullen, with Bazunu readjusting mid-dive to claw it away.

However, the 20-year-old was already pulling up trees for Portsmouth by that time, in the opening months of a season-long loan which ended with him being voted as Pompey’s Player of the Season.

Across 44 league appearances, Bazunu wracked up 16 clean sheets (3rd most in L1) and 135 total saves (4th in L1) with a save percentage of 73.4% (9th in L1). The youngster also showed an impressive composure on the ball when called upon, something to be expected from any Manchester City goalkeeper given the influence Pep Guardiola has had on the philosophy of the club.

With an acrobatic style that makes every save look wicked, the former Shamrock Rovers ‘keeper will attract major interest over the summer, meaning Boro would have to move quickly to secure his signature with both Southampton and Everton reportedly running the rule over the Irish international.

Another young goalkeeper who may be on Boro’s radar is someone who was able to beat out Bazunu in the race to be named the best goalkeeper in League 1 this season. Plymouth’s Michael Cooper has been a revelation for the Green Army since breaking into the starting lineup at Home Park.

Receiving national acclaim for his performance against Chelsea in the FA Cup 4th Round in February, Cooper came away from this season as Plymouth’s Player of the Season as well as being named in the League 1 Team of the Year.

The 22-year-old also shared the league’s Golden Glove Award with David Stockdale for the most clean sheets(18) while recording a 74.4% save percentage (2nd most of ‘keepers who played more than 23 games).

Despite his age, Cooper has already featured more than 100 times for The Pilgrims, including 95 successive appearances in League One. The 6ft 2″ custodian has an incredible penchant for making jaw-dropping saves and is a strikers worst nightmare in one-on-one situations, seemingly able to get a toe or finger to the ball in any situation.

Having played under Ryan Lowe and now Steven Schumacher (Lowe’s former assistant) at Plymouth, Cooper has also blossomed into a confident ball-player, responsible for starting many of the sides attacks. He also possesses a gargantuan throw that would be an additional weapon to help unleash Isaiah Jones next season.

Recently championed by former Boro boss Neil Warnock as someone who “will go to the very top”, the only slight on Cooper would be if he could handle the pressure of not only transitioning to the Championship but doing so at a club with lofty ambitions.

If Boro wanted to take less of a risk and move for a ‘keeper who has already proven themselves in the Championship, they’d do well to take an interest in the man who filled the goal for their final opponents of the season at Deepdale.

Daniel Iversen has been among the best goalies in the Championship during his extended loan spell at Preston from parent club Leicester, first joining the Lillywhites in January 2021 before returning for last season.

A commanding, calming presence that fills the goal, the Dane was a revelation for Preston with many North End fans claiming that Iversen was better than previous loanee Jordan Pickford at this stage in his career.

While Iversen’s save percentage dropped from 74.4% in 2021 to 70.4% this season, that is in part to Preston’s poor start to the campaign and the Leicester loanee facing the most shots on target in the league by any goalkeeper – a whopping 180 (Russ Bray voice).

The 24-year-old has also improved his distribution especially since Ryan Lowe became the manager at Preston.

Another quality Iversen possesses that could make him an ideal candidate for Boro is that he’s a bit of a prick. As he watched his team coast to victory on the final day Iversen, after pulling off a couple of top-drawer saves, turned to the Boro fans behind the goal on a number of occasions to try and wind us up. I like that. Keepers are freaks. They’re not normal and they need that arrogance about them.

With uncertainty around Kasper Schmeichel’s future, you’d think Iversen would have a shot at being part of Leicester’s squad for next season but the Foxes are reported to be interested in Brighton’s Robert Sanchez, which could open the door for Iversen to leave on a permanent basis.

Although he was crowned Preston’s Player of the Year after playing in all 46 games, North End Director Peter Risdale has said that the chances of him returning are “slim” with the team unable to afford a permanent transfer.

Boro have in fact been credited with interest in Iversen over the past week and his signing would certainly be welcomed by the fans.

Another goalkeeper that has been linked with the club over the past week is Karl Darlow, who is slowly reaching Chris Gunter levels of transfer window familiarity with Middlesbrough.

Approaching 32 years of age, Darlow has been a solid and dependable stopper for Newcastle since signing for the daft Geordies in 2014 and his signing would show a level of “win now ” ambition from Boro.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he’d wear the gloves for 95% of teams at this level and when he’s been forced to deputise for Martin Dubravka in recent seasons it hasn’t been his form that has cost Darlow his place in the starting lineup.

However, one of the overwhelming factors in the Englishman being unable to permanently displace Dubravka from the starting spot on Tyneside is poor distribution. During the 20/21 season, when Darlow played 25 games in the Premier League, he ranked sixth-last out of qualifying goalkeepers in pass completion.

While he would be a clear improvement in goal, it’s hard to imagine that Chris Wilder and his coaching staff have any desire to hand-hold another goalkeeper through learning how to pass the ball and act as a sweeper-keeper.

Should the links in the press prove to be more than digital chip butty wrappers, the imminent signing of Dean Henderson would push Darlow further down the pecking order which should knock his transfer fee and wage demands down slightly.

If the club wish to make an ambitious statement and target another goalkeeper who has played in the Premier League then they may look to pounce on the bi-annual uncertainty around Marek Rodak’s future at Fulham.

The Cottager’s current number 1 is facing the same issues that presented themselves during Fulham’s last promotion to the top flight, when Alphonse Areola was brought in on loan from PSG, despite Fulham fans being right behind Rodak. This time it’s Lazio custodian and Albanian international Thomas Strakosha who is apparently being lined up to take over the gloves.

Rodak recently gave an interview to the Slovakian press outlining that “if the situation from last year will repeat, I would clearly not be satisfied and would have to deal with it. I guess I’d have to consider going elsewhere because I want to play. I don’t want to sit on the bench again”.

While his previous ousting could be considered natural progression at a club with ambitions of eliminating it’s yo-yo reputation, this time around the Slovakian international would be rightly aggrieved if he is cast aside.

Now 25, the Fulham Academy graduate has blossomed into one of the standout goalkeepers in the Championship after wrestling the #1 shirt from Paulo Gazzaniga, finishing 6th amongst all ‘keepers in the league for save percentage (75%).

More composed and commanding than in previous seasons, Rodak now exudes confidence which filtered out to a Fulham defence that conceded 43 goals on the way to winning the league.

The spindly stopper has also massively improved his ability on the ball, with Marco Silva tasking his side with building from the back, frequently starting attacking moves off with passes into the fullback areas or to the centre-halves.

It would take a significant investment to acquire Rodak and the last Fulham ‘keeper deemed surplus to requirements who arrived at the Riverside still gives me sleepless nights, but Rodak knows how to guard the net and do so in a promotion winning team – twice.

These previous 5 ‘keepers are all, in some form, familiar to all Boro fans and it wouldn’t be a transfer piece without throwing in a bit of an unknown quantity to seem really knowledgeable.

Yet Jean Butez, a Frenchman that plays in Belgium, may be the best fit of all the goalkeepers mentioned here for Chris Wilder’s team.

Plying his trade at Royal Antwerp, where he counts former Boro men Faris Haroun, Ritchie De Laet and Viktor Fischer as teammates, Butez has been in stunning form for The Great Old this season.

Sitting atop the pile in the Jupiler Pro League for save percentage (79.8%) and total saves (138) whilst being second overall for clean sheets with 12 despite facing the most shots on target (173) is an outstanding achievement for the 26-year-old who helped guide Antwerp to 4th spot in the league and a place in Belgium’s convoluted play-off competition.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Shutterstock

Adept at coming off his line to both make saves and to tidy up loose balls, Butez clips the ball into the fullback and wide areas with fantastic accuracy which has become key to head coach Brian Priske’s side. Butez, formerly of Lille, also possesses top-tier reflexes which make him an impressive shot-stopper from short and long-range efforts.

While Antwerp will be playing European football again next season, it isn’t wild to think a Championship side could attract Butez, especially one in Boro’s position. Thomas Kaminski traded Champions League football for Ewood Park to join Blackburn after Gent had finished 2nd in the league in the previous campaign.

Whichever direction the club go in as they look to fill the #1 shirt this summer, they have to get it right. Not having to worry about our goalkeeper every time the opposition attacks would be classed as self-care at this stage. Fingers crossed, lads.

Photo Credits: The Gazette/Teesside Live, Lancs Live, Plymouth Herald, Julian Finney

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