One Young Lion

While Adam Clayton has been cross dressing on his stag do in Vegas and Britt Assombalonga has been bromancing all over California with Paddy Bamford, one young lion has already begun to stake a claim for a place in Tony Pulis’s first team plans next season. Instead of going on a lads holiday to Aya Napa, Dael Fry has been winning tournaments with England. He’s making a habit out of this.

Last year’s U20 World Cup victory was a fantastic achievement for the boy from Berwick Hills, but much of that competition was spent playing second fiddle to the Chelsea duo of Fikayo Omori and Jake Clarke-Salter.

However, in the Toulon Tournament, Dael Fry played second fiddle to nobody. At the heart of a back three, mirroring the setup the senior side will be using at the World Cup, Fry led by example.

His calming influence at the back allowed the U21s star men Tammy Abraham and Eddie Nketiah to fly forward and get a sackful of goals. Our lad even got in on the act, scoring his first ever goal against China in the opening game before bagging the all-important equaliser in the final against Mexico.

Not his actual first goals like, he’s probably banged in a thousand playing heads and volleys over on the field in his teenage years, but his first professional goals.

Dael’s commanding displays didn’t go unnoticed, as he was included in the team of the tournament alongside Newcastle ‘keeper Freddie Woodman and his skipper Lewis Cook. So now, two months shy of his 21st birthday, is this Fry’s time or is it yet another false dawn for the academy graduate?

After bursting on the scene as a 17 year old with a European Championship victory with England U17s as well as a Man of the Match performance against Preston on the opening day of the 15/16 season, Fry was quickly sent back to the youth team as Aitor Karanka set his sights on promotion from the Championship.

In February, after captaining the Under 19 team to the knockout rounds of the UEFA Youth League, Fry was thrown into a promotion push as the giraffe necked Daniel Ayala found himself in familiar territory on Chris Moseley’s physio table.

Things started well as only a worldy from Fabio (yes that one) in a 3-1 win against Cardiff got past the Teesside Towers of Fry and Ben Gibson in three games. Boro were going to clinch promotion on the bedrock of two local lads and it made us all buzz.

Not since the glory days of Downing, Morrison, Cattermole and later on Big Davey Wheater and Matty Bates had we seen multiple academy graduates represent the town at the Riverside. For all the excitement and quality a multi-million pound signing can bring, nothing comes close to seeing “one of our own” do well.

Unfortunately, anyone who’s right into their David Attenborough will know that young lions are constantly under threat, which would be the case for Dael Fry.

Two costly mistakes from the lad in seemingly easy games against Rotherham and Charlton came about in the midst of Karankagate, as the wheels looked to have completely fallen of our promotion chasing bandwagon in comical circumstances and coincided with Ayala returning to full fitness.

Promotion to the Premier League followed on that faithful day against Brighton and it left Fry in a state of flux. Calum Chambers and Bernardo Espinosa were brought in to boost the centre back department as Boro looked to solidify their place as a Premier League outfit.

Well down the pecking order, the now 19 year old needed game time to aid his growth and was offered the chance to spend a season at Rotherham. He soon found out that relegation battles are no place for 19 year olds to develop their game.

Rotherham were absolutely borstal and getting hammered every game but Fry was still standing out amongst the chaos. The Millers then sacked Alan Stubbs, who’d brought Fry in, for Kenny Jackett and the youngster fell out of favour as Jackett attempted to plug the holes in Rotherham’s leaky ship with experience.

Fry wouldn’t play a single game throughout November and December and his loan was terminated by Boro in early January

The next eight months were probably the hardest and slowest of Fry’s rise. With game time impossible to pick up in the Premier League, he was relegated (as Boro would be) back to the youth team.

Rather than taking the modern footballer stance of throwing a paddy or giving up, Fry did what everyone from Boro does in a shitty situation; he knuckled down and fought back to make sure he was ready to take any chance that came his way.

It was probably a relief for Dael to be whisked off to South Korea with the Under 20 side that summer. Although he only made three appearances in the tournament, being part of a successful England squad with some of his mates would only motivate him to push on even more once his feet landed back on home turf, with a new manager to impress at Boro.

As always seems to be the case, the chance Fry had hoped for was handed to him at the expense of Dani Ayala. The Spaniard’s “cool as ice” back pass against Wolves in the season opener had cost Garry Monk a decent result in his first game in charge and he immediately dropped Ayala in favour of the World Cup winner.

The confidence Fry had gained from his time with England was clear to see as he once again teamed up with Gibbo. There was hiccups along the way, mostly down to the rampaging fullbacks Monk liked to employ, but the Reds only lost one in eight after the Wolves game with Dael often outshining his more experienced partner.

Then Fry did what young lads do. He made a mistake. Attempting to shepherd the ball out of play against Norwich instead of clearing it, Fry was robbed by Marley Watkins, who rolled the ball to the feet of James Maddison. Maddison whacked it top bins, Boro lost, hard luck son.

The kid didn’t need telling he’d fucked up and he certainly didn’t need Garry Monk to drop him quicker than an Amsterdam prossie drops her kecks for the following game.

A stand-in for a suspended Ayala aside, Fry wouldn’t play for Garry Monk’s Boro again and only managed one league appearance for Tony Pulis as the Welshman looked to reorganise the defence after he’d taken over.

It looked like the next time Fry would be playing proper competitive football would be at the Toulon Tournament but Dani Ayala did what Dani Ayala has an unhealthy knack for doing. He got injured.

Walking into the lions den of Villa Park for the second leg of a must win play-off semi seemed an insurmountable task for a 20 year old with a handful of games all season. It’s always been that way though. Debut at 17, World Cups and relegation battles. He should have fallen at every single hurdle put in front of him. Dael Fry’s from Boro though, nobody from Boro ever gives up.

Despite Boro being unable to overturn the 1-0 deficit, Fry stood firm against the test of Albert Adomah, Lewis Grabban, Robert Snodgrass and a raucous Villa support. Pulis singled him out for special praise in his post-match press conference which bodes well for the future.

That’s where we’re at now. The future. While it’s bright for the academy standout, it must include consistent game time.

There has been talks of a move for an experienced head like James Collins, who Fry could certainly learn a thing or two from. If there’s an area where he struggles, it’s against physical shithouse strikers and there’s plenty of them in the Championship. Someone like Collins could coach him in the darker arts of defending.

Whatever happens, we have to be patient with him because young lads make mistakes. He needs time and a bit of leeway. Not a one strike and you’re out policy. His achievements with the Young Lions of England speak volumes for his potential. He could be our best academy product, ever. We just need to put faith in him.

Fry has 32 senior games under his belt with his 21st birthday looming. By the time he was 21, Ben Gibson had played 52 times over the course of three loans at Plymouth, York City and Tranmere Rovers and had cemented his place in the Boro first team. He’s the role model that Fry must follow.

Ironically, the very man he must look up to might be heading on to bigger and better things. With a twenty million quid price tag on his head, Uncle Steve is preparing for a summer of phonecalls from Premier League teams for Ben.

After delaying a transfer to help his beloved team try and bounce straight back to the Prem, if Gibbo is to leave he’ll do so with love and goodwill from the Boro faithful.

If Gibbo is to leave, there’s a young lion ready to roar and take his place. A young lion from Berwick Hills, Boro.

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