Middlesbrough: Is Chelsea reject Patrick Bamford running out of chances?
The Middlesbrough striker looked back to his best with two goals against Sunderland but, at 24, he needs to finally deliver on his unfulfilled promise.
Three seasons ago, Patrick Bamford’s name was on the lips of every pundit in the country.
Championship Player of the Year on loan from Chelsea, vital goals against Manchester City and Liverpool in the cups, and wanted by half the managers in the Premier League, the Middlesbrough striker’s career seemed to have a perfect upwards trajectory.
But when he headed in a corner against Southampton in May 2017 – in a 2-1 home defeat – it was his first goal in almost two full seasons of football.
His jubilation was clear. Despite Boro having less than 20 minutes left to salvage a point, he celebrated and celebrated.
In hindsight, it was one of the highlights of a drab Middlesbrough season, an oasis of pure personal joy in a desert of defensive football and goal-scoring ineptitude.
The season and a half that Bamford spent away from Teesside wasn’t one of terrible form but of poor career choices.
Everywhere he went – Crystal Palace, Norwich, and Burnley – the clubs had strikers who weren’t world-beaters but reasonably established forwards. As a youngster on loan with no top-flight experience, knocking them out of the starting eleven would prove to be a difficult task. He had fleeting opportunities and failed to take them when they came.
Even on his return to Middlesbrough, he was well behind Álvaro Negredo in the pecking order and had to fight with Rudy Gestede for a chance. To make matters worse, in the summer, Boro brought in three more strikers in Britt Assombalonga, Martin Braithwaite and Ashley Fletcher.
It is to Bamford’s credit that, while Danish international Braithwaite and £7 million signing Fletcher have been sent straight back out on loan by new boss Tony Pulis, he has stayed and featured regularly.
Back to his best?
For the most part, Bamford has played on the wing. It is not a totally new position to him – he started out wide during the early days of his first spell at the club – but it is not his best either and he has done fairly well.
In the last week, though, Bamford has given four strong signals to Pulis that he is the centre-forward the Welshman should be building his side around.
First, against Hull, he got on the end of a looping cross from Adama Traoré and hooked a boot around the ball – almost reminiscent of one of Zlatan Ibrahimović’s taekwondo volleys – to knock it on to Gestede, who nodded past the keeper to give Middlesbrough the lead.
Then, in the same game but with the scores level again, he robbed a loose ball in midfield, burst beyond the napping backline and dinked a lovely finish over the goalkeeper.
Hitting the highest levels
Bamford’s two-goal performance against Sunderland was even better. With Gestede injured and Adama Traoré, the team’s main attacking threat, sent off, he produced two more excellent goals.
First, he spun marvellously away from a defender in the area before instinctively finding the bottom corner. Soon after, he showed a delicate touch to flick the ball over the advancing keeper and slam it into the net behind him.
While Middlesbrough threw the game away in the 96th minute, leaving Callum McManaman unmarked from a corner to bring the scores level at 3-3, one thing was certain for the travelling fans after the game. Whisper it, they thought, but that was like watching Bamford three years ago.
They were right. He should have had a hat-trick – his first for the club – but the nagging doubts in his game seem to have gone. He is playing, moving, finishing with confidence once again.
Opportunity may finally be knocking
With the likely suspension for Traoré, shown red for reacting furiously to what he claimed was a poke in the eye from Bryan Oviedo, Bamford is now faced with something of a conundrum.
On one hand, Bamford will likely have to continue out wide, still waiting for his chance as the focal point of the team. That is unfortunate.
On the other, if Pulis does give Bamford the starting spot up front against Leeds United on Friday, it would be a significant show of confidence from the new manager. Pulis would have to reshuffle his attack completely to accommodate the change, with Stewart Downing moved out to the left and new loan signing Jack Harrison perhaps brought in on the right.
If he does get the chance, it is a chance that Bamford simply has to take. With Gestede out of the reckoning and Assombalonga unfancied by Pulis, the remaining few months of the season are his chance to prove he can be one of Middlesbrough’s main players next season.
An eye to the future
By then, Bamford will be 25 and in the prime of his career. The early promise of an international future may have faded but there is no reason he cannot still be a top-bracket Championship forward or better.
If not, it is unclear exactly where his career would lead. Down the pecking order at Middlesbrough or moved on elsewhere, it would be at best another sideways step. A return to boyhood club Nottingham Forest and father figure Aitor Karanka would seem the most likely option.
He is still an immensely popular figure on Teesside and there is no doubt that the Middlesbrough fans would love to see him succeed.
This may be something of a crossroad in his career but it is one which presents him with a huge opportunity to kick-start his career.
What do you think? Could Patrick Bamford go on to salvage his career from here? Get in touch by commenting below.