Football Features

From Bamford to a Barcelona duo: Where Middlesbrough’s 2017/18 Championship play-off side ended up

By Ben Green

Published: 15:30, 4 May 2022

As we reach the final day of the regular Championship season, Middlesbrough have an outside chance of making the play-offs.

Since their relegation from the Premier League in 2016/17, Boro have constantly been fighting for a return but they have struggled to get out what is often classed as the toughest league in Europe.

They actually went closest in their first season back in the Championship, finishing fifth and entering the play-offs, though Tony Pulis’ side lost to fourth-placed Aston Villa in the semi-finals.

Managing to hold onto a fair few of their stars from the previous Premier League campaign, it was some Middlesbrough team. But Chris Wilder’s side will be looking to do even better if they can secure the play-offs, needing to beat Preston North End and hope Luton Town drop points or Sheffield United lose to make it into the top six.

But first, let’s have a look back at that 2017/18 and some of its stars.

Darren Randolph (Goalkeeper)

These days Darren Randolph has a cushy sinecure on the sidelines as West Ham’s third-choice goalkeeper, but it wasn’t too long ago the Irish half-centurion was a club’s No. 1 shot-stopper. The now 34-year-old was an ever-present in that 2017/18 season, keeping 17 clean sheets — including in the play-off semi-final second leg against Aston Villa. He was named Boro’s Player of the Year the following campaign and eventually returned to the Hammers, where he remains.

George Friend (Defender)

Friend was something of a fan favourite during his time at Middlesbrough and remained at the club for another three seasons following their Premier League relegation in 2016/17. However, after losing his place as a regular starter in the 2019/20 campaign, he declined a new contract and joined Birmingham City on a free transfer — Friend remains with the Midlands club at present.

Ben Gibson (Defender)

Gibson’s hard-nosed approach bulked up Boro’s backline for eight solid years and after marshalling the Teesiders’ defence for one final campaign in that 2017/18 season, a big-money move eventually materialised after Burnley acquired his services for £15m in 2018. Gibson had all the attributes of a Sean Dyche defender, but injury complications hampered his Turf Moor existence and he is now at Norwich City, recently suffering the second relegation of his career to return to the Championship.

Daniel Ayala (Defender)

Ayala was the first permanent signing of the Aitor Karanka era, a critical part of their promotion campaign and important in helping them stabilise after relegation. In total, the Liverpool graduate made over 200 appearances for Boro before joining Blackburn in 2020 after being released by the club.

Ryan Shotton (Defender)

Ryan Shotton was once heralded as the Second Coming of Rory Delap after coming through at Stoke and mastering the art of the long throw under Pulis. The two would later link up at Boro, where Shotton was once again pushed out wide as a right-back by Pulis, having been repurposed at centre-half at Birmingham and signed by the club for that very purpose under Garry Monk.

Was his long throw tactic part of Pulis’ consideration to shoehorn the 6ft 3in defender back out on the flank? It possibly was according to Shotton himself.

“When Tony was appointed I went, ‘I’m probably going to have to turn back to a full-back!’” Shotton said in 2018.

“That’s OK, as long as I’m playing. I haven’t looked back. I’ve found my love back for right-back at the minute. I’m enjoying it.

“The throw-in was definitely coming out again! I was lying to myself to be playing centre-half. I’m more than happy I’m in the team.”

Fabio (Defender)

Unlike his twin brother Rafael, Fabio da Silva was never able to play regular minutes for Manchester United — apart from starting the 2011 Champions League Final against Barcelona — and had to settle for a career mostly away from top-flight football.

That said, he still played 24 Premier League games for Boro in 2016/17 and remained a mainstay for them the following season back in the Championship, doing enough to win an unexpected top-flight return, this time in France with Nantes.

Cyrus Christie (Defender)

Cyrus Christie’s sole season at Boro came in 2017/18. The 29-capped Republic of Ireland international featured heavily for the Teesiders in the first half of the season, but given Pulis’ predilection for Shotton as a right-back, Christie fell down the pecking order and found his home largely on the bench.

Marten de Roon (Midfielder)

De Roon made one Championship appearance for Boro in 2017/18, qualifying him for this article. The Dutchman was by no means bad across his one-and-a-bit-year stay in the North East. In fact, he was probably Boro’s best player during their one-year Premier League visit. But nobody could have predicted that after leaving the Riverside, he would go on to become the midfield anchor for one of the strongest and most entertaining sides in Italy and the whole of Europe.

Indeed, De Roon has played well over 200 games since returning to Atalanta, often helping them compete for titles and become Champions League regulars. He has 28 caps and counting to his name for the Netherlands, too. There are worse ways to get over a relegation, that’s for sure!

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Jack Harrison (Midfielder)

Now one of Leeds’ midfield catalysts in the Premier League, Harrison originally joined Boro on loan from Manchester City. But, with Stewart Downing and Adama Traore ahead of him in the pecking order, the former England U21 international was restricted to just four appearances before returning to his parent club.

Grant Leadbitter (Midfielder)

A boyhood Sunderland fan who made over 120 appearances for his beloved club, Grant Leadbitter made the controversial decision to move to Middlesbrough in 2012 after a stay with Ipswich in between.

The midfielder ultimately proved a hit, though, playing 244 games for Boro in six seasons. Unfortunately, only 13 of those came in the Premier League, with a Hernia injury really knocking him down the pecking order.

Incredibly, Leadbitter returned to Sunderland in January 2019 and was club captain just a year later. He finally retired last year without completing the hat-trick by playing for Newcastle. Coward!

Adam Clayton (Midfielder)

Clayton forged a reputation as a solid midfielder with something of an eye for goal during his 94-game spell with Huddersfield Town, scoring 12 times. But in 241 games for Middlesbrough, he hit the net just once.

Nevertheless, he was a reliable presence for the club across six seasons, including in 2016/17 when he played 34 times in the Premier League, and 2017/18 when he played 30 times in the Championship.

Clayton left for Birmingham in 2020 and now turns out for Doncaster Rovers.

Adam Forshaw (Midfielder)

Adam Forshaw exceeded expectations during his spell at Middlesbrough but left just halfway through their first season back in the Championship, joining Leeds United. He remains at Elland Road but has had mixed success there, often going from playing an important midfield role to becoming a forgotten man. Injuries haven’t helped, of course.

Jonny Howson (Midfielder)

Signed that season to beef up the midfield and bring a bit of experience to Boro’s squad, Howson had been there and done it in the Championship, securing promotion to the Premier League with Norwich in 2015. He hasn’t been able to replicate that feat on Teeside (yet), but he has played over 200 times for Boro and established himself as a fan favourite known for his grit and steel in the heart of an industrious midfield.

Stewart Downing (Forward)

The former poster boy made a glorious return to Middlesbrough in 2015 and played another 170 games for the club across four seasons, albeit in a more industrious role than he’d previously enjoyed.

Downing made stayed with Middlesbrough until 2019 before making his second exit from the club, joining Blackburn Rovers, doing two years in the North West before retiring.

Patrick Bamford (Forward)

Bamford looked like a classic second-tier striker for years, routinely scoring for fun in the Championship (including for Middlesbrough) but always failing in the Premier League. He scored just once in eight appearances for Boro in 2016/17 but finished the 2017/18 Championship season as the club’s second-highest goalscorer before Leeds United came knocking.

That’s been the best move of his career, with Bamford firing the Whites to promotion and scoring 17 goals in 38 appearances in the 2020/21 Premier League season — enough to earn him his first senior cap for England. This season he has been halted by injuries, however, and his absence as been very clear with Leeds struggling.

Britt Assombalonga (Forward)

Boro’s top scorer that season was Britt Assombalonga, who joined the club in the summer with a burgeoning reputation as prolific goal-getter. And he certainly lived up to that profile. A 15-goal tear in the Championship was enough to get them into the play-offs but not the Premier League. He stuck around for three more seasons at the Riverside, though his goal output gradually declined before a return of just five strikes last term prompted a clear-out, which saw him relocate to Adana Demirspor last summer.

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Adama Traore (Forward)

Traore failed to make an impact in the Premier League with Boro, but was one of their best performers in the Championship a year later, alongside a certain Martin Braithwaite.

Who would have thought those two would go on to become teammates at Barcelona? Traore sealed a loan return to the Camp Nou in January after an impressive yet slightly enigmatic spell with Wolves.

Not your conventional career path, by any stretch.

Martin Braithwaite (Forward)

Talking of Braithwaite. The Denmark international opted to drop down a division to join Boro, moving from top-flight French football to second-tier English football in 2017, and despite his pedigree in Ligue 1, Braithwaite never really got going at the Riverside. He featured 19 times in the first half of the 2017/18 season before joining Bordeaux on loan in January. Upon returning to Boro, Braithwaite would once more feature in the first half of a Championship campaign (2018/19) before again going out on loan in January, this time to Leganes. 

The 30-year-old completed a permanent move to the brilliantly-nicknamed Cucumber Growers that summer, and eventually moved on to Barca in a transfer shrouded by controversy. Despite Leganes battling relegation in 2019/20, Barca signed Braithwaite at the end of February, a month after the winter window had slammed shut. They were granted an emergency exception because of the long-term injury to Ousmane Dembele, leaving Leganes no time to sign a replacement, and eventually culminating in their relegation. 

Rudy Gestede (Forward)

Gestede was signed from Aston Villa for £6m in January 2017 as Boro made a desperate swipe at Premier League safety. He ultimately failed to help with just one goal in 16 appearances and continued to struggle over the next three seasons, with injuries hampering his progress.

Gestede had a decent spell in Australia with the Melbourne Victory in 2021, earning him a move back to Europe with Panetolikos, but he only played three games for the club. The Benin international now plays in Iran for Esteghlal.