With everything that has happened this year, the summer of 2019 is so far in the rear view mirror that it seems like decades have passed since Steve Gibson, Neil Bausor and Adrian Bevington sat in that press conference at Rockliffe to announce the managerial appointment of Jonathan Woodgate and the introduction of a “Golden Thread” that would connect every aspect of the club from the Academy to the first team.
Part of this new model was a revamp in the club’s approach to transfers.
No longer would we be throwing silly money around at big name Championship stars and high profile Premier League loanees. Instead, we would be targeting those elusive bargain signings from the lower leagues, those diamonds in the rough that could be developed into quality players before being sold on for a premium price.
The first of these, along with Marcus Browne, were the defensive pairing of Anfernee Dijksteel and Marc Bola.
Despite Woodgate’s assurance that they would “come good”, neither player enjoyed positive starts to their lives on Teesside, struggling to make the jump up from League One to the Championship. These struggles were further amplified by being in a team that was struggling to find its identity under a rookie manager.
It was difficult to see why the club had spent a large part of the transfer window chasing Dijksteel in a summer shootout with Charlton, the Addicks adamant they wouldn’t sell one of their star men, as the midfielder turned right back failed to convince the Boro faithful of his ability in twelve games before a knee injury against Barnsley which sidelined him for over three months.
Former Arsenal youth Marc Bola had looked more Ashley Banjo than Ashley Cole at left back in seven games including being hooked at half-time of the 4-1 capitulation to Sheffield Wednesday and featuring in the 4-0 horror show at Elland Road. The fullback wasn’t involved in matchday squads at points instead flitting in and out of Under 23 duty.
Even a pre-lockdown loan spell at his old club Blackpool did nothing to raise Bola’s stock as after finally getting a consistent run of games, Blackpool switched to a back three, leaving the 22 year old stranded on the Seasiders bench.
When Jonathan Woodgate was relieved of his duties in June, it would of been no surprise to see either Bola or Dijksteel follow him out of the door, with neither looking likely to break into the team and being the flagbearers of a new age that had gone down in smoke with all of the terrace disdain that brings.
Enter Neil Warnock.
If there was ever a man to shine up some rough diamonds or at least polish a few turds, it’s Neil Warnock. Of course, that wasn’t Warnock’s primary goal when he was called in to salvage the wreckage of H.M.S Golden Thread during “Project Restart”, but his much lauded managerial prowess is most evident in the turnaround in fortunes of Bola and Dijksteel.
After solid showings in the survival run-in against Reading and Sheff Wed, Dijksteel has become Warnock’s “favourite” and one of the first names on the team sheet whether the gaffer goes with a back three or four. Christened Van Dijksteel by the Red Army, he has been a major part of a defence that has only conceded one goal from open play all season and picked up six clean sheets in the last seven matches.
Stats are a bit nerdy and that but they back up the buzz that his performances have generated as he leads the team in blocks and clearances per game (0.9 + 2.5 respectively) while only trailing Dael Fry in interceptions per game (2.2).
The term Rolls Royce is thrown around liberally in football but if people want to label Paddy McNair or Dael Fry as the Rolls Royce of the Boro defence then Dijksteel is the Ford Mustang.
Combining his strength and athletic attributes with an ever-improving ability to read the game, the 24 year old has put the cuffs on some of the Championships deadliest forwards including Ivan Toney, Lucas João and Nakhi Wells. He’s even developing a trademark move that could follow in the footsteps of George Friends cut-in and Julio Arca’s drag back into Boro folklore.
Let’s set the scene. The opposition forward has the ball and is dribbling towards goal. He knocks it around Dijksteel and prepares to shoot. He’s already got tomorrow’s headlines flashing through his mind as he opens up to strike.
Except, the ball isn’t at his feet anymore. It’s a shift of the hips to cut the space off. It’s a throwback to playing in the garden as a kid and your big brother throwing his weight around to muscle you off the ball. Yoink and it’s gone. Anfernee Dijksteel has took it away and is motoring back into the middle of the park. You’ve been duped. No goals for you today, mate.
If Dijksteel is Warnock’s favourite then Marc Bola has to be the gaffer’s most improved player. As recently as September it would have been hard to argue that Bola was anything other than third choice at his position. If we’re all honest with each other, a lot of us just wanted a new left-back during the transfer window.
However, a surprise inclusion in the victory against Barnsley seems to have jump-started a Boro career that previously hadn’t even got out of the starting gates.
Having looked timid and unsure that he belonged at this level last season, seemingly unable to run forward and always opting to pass it inside, Bola has shown some of the “modern fullback” attacking qualities that led to his signing by linking up with Hayden Coulson to add much needed energy and pace to the Boro attack.
While this could easily turn out to be a short-lived vein of form, Bola’s quickly established himself as Warnock’s main man on the left and has done so in the face of top drawer opposition. Anthony Knockaert, Bryan Mbuemo and Joe Lolley usually dance rings around Championship fullbacks but Bola has been able to help shut them down.
Cutting off the supply lines to the strikers has made the central defenders jobs easier as the clean sheets rack up. What does Marcus Bettinelli even do during games? He doesn’t have to make saves. No wonder he’s always shouting because he’d fall asleep otherwise.
You could write multiple books on Neil Warnock’s man-management but if anyone needs a quick snapshot then look no further than the duo of Bola and Dijksteel. On the fringes of the squad upon his arrival, the pair look set to feature heavily this season and they’re always smiling. It’s lovely to see. It’s infectious and sums up the mood around the club.
The diamonds in the rough are finally shining.
Photo Credits: The Northern Echo, Teesside Live, Middlesbrough FC