On the pitch, for the first time in a while, things are going swimmingly for Middlesbrough Football Club. Currently on the longest unbeaten run in English league football, the Boro sit sixth in the Championship after ten games, with their only defeat coming on the opening night of the season at Watford.
The Reds have only conceded one goal in their last 540 minutes of play and are giving Teessiders something to smile about as the Warnock Effect takes hold on a squad that has been revitalised by the gaffer’s legendary man-management.
While plenty of of the praise has rightly fallen to the defensive pairing of Anfernee Dijksteel and Paddy McNair as well as the midfield trio of Sam Morsy, Jonny Howson and George Saville, the younger members of the Boro dressing have begun to demand their share of the limelight in recent weeks.
Following a year in which his place in the team was regularly questioned as he struggled to marshal an ever-changing backline, Dael Fry has begun to replicate the type of form that has had him linked with a move to a Premier League team, looking more comfortable at the centre of a regular defensive unit in which his main priority is to actually get on with defending. Y’know, what defenders are meant to do.
Two players who shone last season, Hayden Coulson and Djed Spence, had seen their playing time limited compared to their maiden campaigns. Coulson only had twenty six minutes of game time under his belt until his surprise inclusion in the starting lineup against Nottingham Forest while Spence has spent nearly as much time on the bench in the past ten games as he has in the rest of his Boro career.
However, a switch to a back four in recent weeks has seen the pair pushed up to support Britt Assomabalonga from the flanks, giving them a platform to lobby for regular starting spots with Coulson’s endless bags of toddler-on-a-sugar-rush energy and Spence’s head down, stepover and run dribbling style opening up space in the final third.
Marcus Tavernier has also picked up on his work last season, becoming a key part of Neil Warnock’s plans whether at right wingback, out wide or in midfield, offering the ability to quickly move the ball through midfield and link up play. As the Academy graduate closes in on 100 games for the club, it’s easy to forget that he’s only 21 years old.
Another player whose efforts have belied his age is the youngest member of the senior squad as Nathan Wood stole the headlines with a spectacular performance against Forest in his first league start for his boyhood club.
With Fry coming down with a case of the trots, Wood grabbed his chance by dominating a Forest attack that included the likes of Joe Lolley and Lyle Taylor, before exploding with proper Boro passion at fulltime.
In an interview with the Northern Echo following the match Wood said, having only found out he was starting hours before kickoff, “I was ready. I’ve been ready my whole life to play for the Boro. It’s my dream”.
In a time where footballers become less and less relatable due to the lifestyle that soaring wages bring while being hidden away and dulled down by the in-house PR department, the joy and appreciation local lads tend to show for their team keeps a bond going throughout the club and is one of the best parts of any youngster coming through the ranks. They really are living out the childhood dreams of millions of fans.
This is evident in the two Academy graduates who look most likely to break through next; Sol Brynn and Stephen Walker. On loan at Milton Keynes to gain some much needed experience of regular league football, Walker has already made his debut for the first team and made an impression on the Red Army with his celebrations that mirror those in the stands.
That’s because those celebrations were first pulled out in the stands, Walker being a regular in the South Stand throughout his teens, usually next to Brynn in Block 62 right in the thick of the atmosphere.
While any player that progresses through the academy ranks is instantly dubbed “one of our own” and paraded to the media as a lifelong fan, when a sometimes they’re really Man United or Liverpool fans, Walker and Brynn are genuinely Boro lads. They’ve done the hard miles on away trips and experienced the highs and lows of the past decade.
They’ve also both got the talent that allows them to live out their dreams at their hometown club. Brynn’s stellar performances in the youth setup and during the week at Rockliffe meant that Warnock was happy to let Aynsley Pear’s move to Blackburn on deadline day and it’s easy to see why if his quadruple save in a training game is anything to go by.
Walker has quickly joined forces with Cameron Jerome (no, I still haven’t forgiven him either Ste) at Milton Keynes and scored against Wigan in what is hopefully a top loan spell. Do the Mackems for us while you’re down in League One.
It isn’t just the first team or well-known Young Reds that are putting together top displays this season either. The kids are alright, too. Both the Under 23 and 18 sides are leading their respective divisions and are doing their own fair share of Mackem bashing. Between them, the two sides have put ten goals past their Sunderland equivalents in two meetings, the U23s winning 6-0 and the U18s 4-0.
The Under 23s sit atop the second tier of Premier League 2 as top scorers in the division and with the tightest defence, having only lost once in the opening six games while scoring 16 and only conceding four.
This is even more impressive given that some of the most influential members of the squad have now been promoted to the first team (Wood and Brynn), are out on loan (Connor Malley and Walker) or have left the club in the case of skipper Ben Liddle and Patrick Reading.
In the wake of those departures, a new crop of prospects are beginning to flourish under the guidance of Graeme “Spike” Lee, who has been involved with the Academy since 2012. Williams Kokolo, signed from Sunderland earlier in the year, is a rapid left back that compliments the athleticism and pace that runs right through Spike’s side. On the other side of the defence, Daniel Dodds earned rave reviews for his performance against Leeds’ Jack Harrison in the U23s only defeat of the season.
Filling the void left by Liddle, Hayden Hackney sits in front of the back four and allows French starlet Isiah Cornet to follow in Bilal Brahimi’s footsteps as the skilful engima with mental hair. Cornet began the derby demolition on Sunderland with a screamer from 25 yards out and looks like he could be the answer to the number ten problem for the senior side eventually.
Top scorer with four for the season, Isaac Fletcher who bagged a hat-trick in that defeat of Sunderland, is a tall imposing midfielder with the cliché “good feet for a big’un”. He combines with the pacey duo of Rumarn Burrell and Isaiah Jones to make Boro’s attack a blend of direct balls and quick interplay not too dissimilar to what we see from the first team.
The Under 18s, headed by Mark Tinkler and James Marwood, also know where the goal is as the pairing of Calum Kavanagh and Josh Coburn have eleven goals between them in seven games. Kavanagh, the son of ex-Boro player Graeme, was chased by Arsenal and Chelsea in the summer and is hotly tipped to break through to the next level sooner rather than later.
While the immediate concern is the fortunes of Neil Warnock’s side this season, the future is bright on Teesside. This doesn’t mean that we’ll suddenly be storming the Championship with a host of Boro Babes but there’s some serious talent in our neck of the woods. Watch out. Them Young Reds are coming through.
Photo Credits: Gazette Live, Middlesbrough Football Club