Middlesbrough face early test of their promotion credentials with Championship fixture list

middlesbrough face early test of their promotion credentials with championship fixture list
© PA Wire Middlesbrough manager Chris Wilder

Chris Wilder spoke this week of his desire for Middlesbrough to make a fast start in the upcoming season as he targets promotion back to the Premier League. And with the fixture lists now out, it’s clear that Boro are going to face a very early test of their credentials to meet those targets, with the fixture generator throwing up a tough start for Wilder’s side.

Six of their opening seven opponents, taking us up until the end of August and the closure of the summer transfer window, will have similar aspirations of winning promotion back to the Premier League – offering Boro a chance to set an early marker after Wilder noted that he ‘means business’ this summer.

It all starts at the Riverside live on Sky Sports on Saturday, July 30 as Boro host West Brom in a tea-time kick-off. The Baggies didn’t have the season they would have hoped for last term but still have Premier League parachute payments boosting their transfer dealings this summer, and while manager Steve Bruce might not be the most fanciful of leaders, his Championship promotion record speaks for itself.

We’ll see if Boro can do it on a *maybe not-so-cold* Tuesday night in Stoke in the first month of the season too, while games away at QPR and Watford and home to Sheffield United and Swansea City, all of whom will hope to challenge at the top end next term, mean Boro have a very tough start.

It’s always difficult to analyse the fixture list too closely. The fact is, nobody can really gauge at this stage exactly how each club will stack up at the start of the season and from there throughout. So few transfer dealings have taken place, while anything can happen between now and the end of pre-season that alter the balance of their expectations for the new campaign.

But with lofty ambitions and sky-high standards, Wilder will be looking to take Boro into the new season in good shape and ready to attack that opening month of the campaign head-on to really lay down a marker that makes the rest of the division sit up and take notice. The fixture list only ramps up the feeling that completing as much transfer business as possible early will be pivotal. The earlier a new-look Boro squad can be together and gelling, the better chance they have of picking up as many points as possible from that tricky opening seven.

September and October, as things stand, look far kinder and an opportunity to really build some points. There are tougher games such as Millwall away within that eight-week period, while the 11-game schedule will test the conditioning and depth. But, realistically, a side with the ambitions Boro have this season will pick up far more points than they drop over that period.

September starts with the first Tees-Wear derby in four years as Sunderland make their return to the Championship. It will be intriguing to see how they’ll stand heading to the Riverside after their promotion. The statute of the club, mentality of their manager Alex Neil and relative wealth of their owner would suggest their ambitions will be set higher than merely just survival this term, but how well they bridge the gap between the second and third-tier remains to be seen.

For Boro, collecting as many points as possible early on will be the target, especially in this very unique season that will see the campaign take a four-week break for the World Cup in mid-November. That period could be one of huge upheaval, change and swing for clubs who perhaps don’t start as well as expected, but at Boro the goal to be as close as possible to the top of the table is clear. A trip to Norwich City is a tough way to sign off though.

Last season Boro paid the price for a poor finish to the season. A lot of performances deserved better than the results they ultimately yielded, but nevertheless, Wilder will know that points not hard-luck stories are what will be the difference between achieving his goals this term and not.

Again, looking so far ahead is difficult because, like the Boro boss, we too don’t own a crystal ball and we therefore can’t predict how each team will be looking as April rolls around next year. But, as with the start of the season, the end looks a tricky period too. As things stand, with no rearranged games, Boro will play eight games in the final five weeks of the season.

That period includes tough trips to Huddersfield, Bristol City and Luton Town – never easy places to visit – while Burnley, Norwich and Hull City (ambitious after their recent takeover) visit the Riverside before the season concludes at home to Coventry City on Saturday, May 6. Hopefully, that’s a promotion party day, but for it to be so, Boro will have to negotiate their way through some tough periods at pivotal times in the season.

Realistically though, it’s true that there are no easy games in this division. Probably more so than any other league in the world, the old cliche that anyone is capable of beating another on their day is apt in the Championship. Consistency and high standards are key to success, and they’re exactly what Wilder is trying to instil at Boro. And it’s that rather than the order of their fixture list, that will ultimately determine how successful the upcoming season will be.

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