MIDDLESBROUGH, England Reuters - Former Middlesbrough player and assistant head coach Craig Hignett believes the North-east club must forget about “pretty football” if they are to avoid relegation after just one season in the top flight.
The 47-year-old says the club are now paying the price for Aitor Karanka’s “safety-first” style of play and suggested interim manager Steve Agnew faces an impossible task in seeking to turn around their fortunes.
“I think Boro need five wins to avoid relegation, possibly six,” Hignett, who was Karanka’s former assistant at Boro, told Reuters in an interview. “If you look at what they’ve done over the season as a whole, they’ve only won four games. It’s a tough ask.
“Sometimes you’ve got to forget about pretty football. There’s still eight games left but there are some tough fixtures coming up [including Arsenal (H), Manchester City (H) and Chelsea (A)]. It’s easy to say they’ll be lucky to pick up points there but anything can happen in football.
“I’m pleased Agnew has been given the chance because I think he has earned it. I don’t think it will faze him, but I think he has been given a really tough job. It’s an impossible task when you look at the stats.”
Middlesbrough, who have gone 13 league games without a victory and not won in 2017, host relegation rivals Burnley at the Riverside on Saturday -- a side who are yet to win away from home this season.
The former midfielder, who played for the Teesside-based club between 1992 and 1998, scoring 48 goals in 194 appearances, hopes this is the game to kick-start Middlesbrough’s great escape.
“I think Boro will cause Burnley problems,” he said. “If Boro make the game ugly then I think they will be a handful. If they don’t, and they try to play football, then they could be punished.”
But Middlesbrough have scored the fewest goals (22), attempted the fewest shots on target (73) and had the fewest overall shots (273) in the Premier League this season. Hignett believes their “safety-first” approach could cost them their top-flight status.
“They just don’t score enough goals -- and that’s been the way for the last couple of seasons.
“Boro have a decent defensive record in the Premier League but playing so defensive has come with a price,” said the former Crewe, Barnsley, and Blackburn Rovers player who was a member of the Middlesbrough side beaten 2-0 by Chelsea in the 1997 FA Cup final -- just a week after their relegation from the Premiership.
“Along with Andy Carroll, Rudy Gestede is the best in the league in the air. He’s unbelievable. He’ll win the headers, if they can get people in and around him in the box then they’ll make lots of chances.”
Karanka was relieved of his duties as Middlesbrough head coach last month after an extraordinary collapse in relations with his players, with a fight for survival looming. His former number two Hignett suggested Karanka’s control-freak methods and temper contributed to his downfall.
“When I was assistant at Middlesbrough it was near enough my dream job, I was at the club I love. As it was, the 11 months I was there were a bit turbulent because of Aitor Karanka,” he revealed.
“I only had one fallout with Aitor but with him there’s no coming back from it. If you fall out with him, that’s it. It can never be repaired,” says Hignett, who was appointed in March 2014 and left the following December after a post-match disagreement with the former Real Madrid assistant.
“He was difficult to work with at times. The way he works is very intense. He’s a perfectionist. Sometimes that can be a good thing, but on the other hand, I think there is a time and a place to enjoy what you’re doing.
“At times you couldn’t do that,” Hignett continued. “Aitor just wanted to micro-manage everything, and I struggled with that at times, if I am honest.
“He got the club promoted, which is what he was brought in to do, but ultimately he has been found out in the Premier League.”
Hignett left his job as Hartlepool United manager by mutual consent last January after 11 months in charge but reveals he’s now eager to return to coaching.
He said: “I would like to return to management -- and I know given the resources I will do well. I have learned so much in dealing with players, with chairmen, and situations that are not in your control. They’ll stand me in good stead for my next role.
“I love coaching. If I was to be an assistant or a first-team coach somewhere, that would also suit me down to the ground. It’s what I’ve grown up with and it’s what I know best.
Hignett added: “I’m happy to travel. It doesn’t matter where it is. I’m not bothered whether it’s somewhere local, down south or somewhere abroad. I just want to be back in football.”