Enjoy The Ride

Before Tuesday’s victory against Wigan, Jonathan Woodgate said something really, really odd. When quizzed about the upcoming game, the Boro native said “Do we need a win to keep the fans on board? Of course. We have got to believe in what we are doing. It is a long term plan not a short-term plan. It is not a short-term fix. It takes time so we need the fans to stay with us.”

What’s odd about that?

It’s not even the end of August. Woody had overseen 4 competitive games before Tuesday night and he felt it necessary to pitch a plea to the supporters to stick with the team. There might never have been such a damning indictment of the state of play on the Riverside terraces than that. It’s still beer garden weather and the kids are still off school yet it’s almost like it’s mid-March and Boro are staving off relegation.

Even the win against Wigan was punctuated with near comical moans and groans after every misjudged pass. Rudy Gestede was actually booed onto the pitch as a late substitute. Alright, he is a donkey but no Boro player should be abused *just* for being a bit rubbish. We’d be booing all day long if that was the case.

Look, four points from four seemingly comfortable opening games isn’t great. Since the half-time whistle blew against Brentford, the Reds have been clunky, lethargic and awkward in possession and that needs to be rectified while getting played off the park and knocked out the cup by Crewe Alexandra is a straight up kick in the bollocks but we don’t have a divine right to beat any other professional football team. We’re Boro not Barcelona.

However, this isn’t simply about getting four points from four games and suffering a cup upset. Jonathan Woodgate, his coaching team and the entire football club are attempting to create a systemic change throughout MFC and that doesn’t happen after a handful of games and a couple of months on the training ground. In the same way that the Transporter Bridge wasn’t built in a day, this new era will need time and patience to come to fruition and needs the best possible surroundings to thrive.

You wouldn’t go in your garden and scream at the soil a day after you’d planted sunflower seeds and booing after a single defeat or sub-par performance is just as counterproductive and weird.

There have already been promising signs in amongst the opening flurry of fixtures to get excited about, that show the press conference spiel when Woodgate was unveiled as Head Coach wasn’t simply to give the Gazette lads plenty of column inches.

Being in a rocking away end at Luton in an end-to-end thriller full of high pressing, attacking intent and most importantly GOALS (goals are mint) after 18 months of soul-sapping, methodical Pulisball was almost like an out-of-body experience. That’s the Boro playing? Doing loads of shots and goals? No way. The first 45 minutes against Brentford was the most energetic, exciting non-Adama Traore-centric performance from a Boro side for what felt like years and only criminally substandard officiating stopped us from going into the dressing room with a 2-0 lead.

What’s followed hasn’t been good. Frankly it’s been a bit crap. Brentford reorganised and outplayed us because they’re efficient as fuck at playing football their way. It’s what they’ve done for years and there’s a reason plenty of sides, including us, are following their lead in implementing a sustainable long-term vision for their club. Crewe was a nightmare and we looked like a team of strangers for the most part against Blackburn.

The win on Tuesday night came after a lot of sloppy play and it was a result that had to be ground out, against opposition we should be putting away comfortably on home soil. That’s part and parcel of creating change. There will be teething issues, parts will need to be tweaked and things are going to go wrong. This is real life not FIFA 19.

This lack of patience and unrest isn’t just a Boro problem though. It’s not even just a football problem. It’s a societal one. We’re living in the Instant Gratification Era, where a parmo is a couple of clicks away on Just Eat and self-worth for some is measured in “likes” and followers. We want the world and we want it now.

Football itself is being boiled down into a sanitised, numbers based product that is analysed to the nth degree and players are treated like robots. Things like expected goals ratios, key passes and possession percentages are held up as matchday measuring sticks while forgetting about the raw nature and human emotion attached to the beautiful game. Some people base their main understanding of the game on playing Football Manager and FIFA Ultimate Team and think picking the eleven best players, a formation and hitting start is wholly applicable to the actual game.

Human error is a real challenge that every football player faces no matter how much money they earn. There will be times this season where Lewis Wing picks the wrong pass, Ashley Fletcher misses a straightforward chance and Daniel Ayala mistimes a challenge. Woody can’t just click a few buttons on his XBOX controller and have the team transform into a perfect high-pressing, one touch passing outfit that blows everyone out of the water, flies up the league and has the Riverside packed out each week. Not just because this is the real world but because old habits die hard.

The current crop of players, new lads aside, have spent a season (or more in some cases) under the tutelage of Tony Pulis and his way of playing football. A way of playing football that not only limited attacking prowess but must’ve also knocked player’s confidence and morale. Britt Assombalonga did not get into football to hold a ball up at one end of the pitch for 5 minutes while the rest of the team got out of our own box. Paddy McNair didn’t join the club to play a couple of games at right back.

Woody isn’t just trying to build things back up by rewriting the script, he’s set the thing on fire and pissed on the ashes. If you’d spent 18 months in a job you weren’t particularly enjoying, doing the same thing the same way day in and day out and someone came in to give you an entirely new way of working, it’d take time to adjust. It’s the same for footballers. They’re humans like us. Humans with lovely houses and fast cars, but humans nonetheless.

The same goes for us as fans. The past few seasons have been below expectation and there’s been some terrible mistakes made. The Garry Monk experiment went horribly wrong and we’re still feeling the ramifications of that slippery ginger div squandering nearly £50 million in one summer. Recruitment has been shoddy. The appointment and subsequent football of Tony Pulis pushed away many fans and ripped at the already frayed fabrics of the club/supporter connection that has wavered since Aitor Karanka left.

The club also haven’t helped themselves with numerous PR gaffes including the ticketing debacles against Brentford and with Red Faction for the Crewe game but they are attempting to rebuild those bridges with a long-term plan. Something to help our football club over years and years, not months, as Financial Fairplay and Premier League TV money sticks most Championship clubs on the back foot. The club have reset their focus and expectations and while it’s difficult all supporters need to as well.

That isn’t to say we have to all sit there and be happy clappy at every turn. There aren’t many more frustrating sights in football than Ryan Shotton attempting to play it out from the back. We’re still several players short and it’s going to take more than one window to bring in the right players for this new system. Our new players are young lads still finding their way in football.

We’re going to concede a fair amount of goals this season, we’re going to lose a lot more games than we’re used to and it’s going to be a battle but it’s time to show a united front. We can’t allow the Riverside to become one of those places that away teams come to knowing all they have to do is get through the first 15 minutes and then the crowd will turn. That’s where we’re heading at the moment. Let’s not be the Mackems, ey.

The fans did stick with the team for the most part on Tuesday. The final 10 minutes, with our backs against the wall, the South Stand reverberated with a near constant, defiant chant of “Jonny Woodgate’s Red and White Army”. It helped drag the team over the line and that was shown in Leo Percovich’s celebrations in front of that end at full time. That is the attitude that’s needed this season. This is a team that needs to have a steadfast support behind it, not catcalls and jeers following every mistake.

This is a club that now promises to be forged from Teesside steel. Both chairman and Head Coach are Boro born and bred. Dael Fry, who learned his football on the backfields of Berwick Hills (Boro), could wind up being captain one day if we can continue to fend off Premier League interest. Young Reds like Ste Walker are graduates of the Red Army as much as they are of Rockliffe having followed the team round the country before signing pro deals. Leo Percovich embodies the passionate, resilient Teesside nature better than almost anybody. We rallied behind him during his darkest days and he is one of own.

Let’s get behind these lads and everyone connected to Middlesbrough Football Club. This season is going to be a rocky road but get a grip and enjoy the ride.

Image Credits: The Gazette, Reuters

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