Play the kids.
It’s a sentence that we’ve all thrown out there at one time or another, usually in anger during a bad run of form.
It’s the go-to exclamation point when voicing disdain against the current crop of senior pros that, at least in your opinion, are only arsed about their wages and aren’t giving enough for the team. At least the kids would put a shift in.
However, for the Boro, playing the kids might well be the best way to breathe a final lungful of life into a season that hasn’t so much as faded away but completely evaporated.
The hope that the club entered 2021 with has fizzled out and it has taken some of the shine off Neil Warnock’s reign so far. The least you expect from his sides is a bit of fight but that attitude that won fans over has rarely been seen over the past few months.
With five games to go and fourteen points separating them and the top 6, it’d be fair to say that Boro are already on the beach. Except, they don’t look like they can even be bothered to pack their cases. They’re taking staycation to a new level with every Jonny Howson up and under that flies over Chuba Akpom’s head.
Boro now face games against fellow beach boys QPR and Luton as well as the current bottom 3 of Rotherham, Sheff Wed and Wycombe.
This period of effectively meaningless games, for us at least, does present Warnock with an opportunity to blood some youngsters and get a real look at some of the hot prospects at the club, some of whom could be useful squad members next season.
One such prospect is someone who Warnock has already confirmed will be involved in the final weeks of the season, Richmond born striker Josh Coburn. The 18 year old forward has been the talk of Teesside in recent months and with good reason.
Coburn has 13 goals this season in 19 games split between stints in the Boro Under-18 and Under-23 teams and his hat-trick on Tuesday against Blackburn helped to send the U17s into the final of the Premier League Cup.
At 6 foot 3, Coburn could be the trademark Warnock-type striker that the gaffer has been desperate to bring in, providing he can add a bit of beef to his frame.
While in brief highlight packages for the U17s and U18s, Coburn can be seen bullying defenders, the Championship is a different story all together, though he’s already getting some good work in against Dael Fry and Grant Hall while training with the first team.
Despite being a “big man”, his performance against Blackburn showed that Coburn has a tidy pair of feet to match the physical attributes, shimmying and knocking it past Rovers defenders with ease in the lead up to all three of his goals.
Though the pressure and hype are already building around the kid before he’s made his debut, getting him involved now should hopefully help him shake some initial nerves before playing in front of the fans next season.
Two other players who’ve joined Coburn in training with the first team lately are Hayden Hackney and Connor Malley, two thirds of the Under-23s midfield.
Hackney impressed heavily on his debut in the FA Cup against Brentford in January and while Connor Malley struggled to break into the Carlisle team during his loan spell in the first half of the season, he is extremely well thought of by the club hierarchy.
There were even claims that he was being groomed to step up into the “Pirlo role” when Jonathan Woodgate was in charge.
The Boro midfield has looked increasingly one dimensional since the start of 2021 and adding two promising youngsters into the mix would certainly inject some enthusiasm into the centre of the park.
Both Hackney and Malley are comfortable with getting the ball down and playing it on the deck, something that is sorely missed when Tavernier has been injured and would help the forwards get more involved in the remaining games.
The third member of the Under-23s midfield, Isaac Fletcher, has already been included in the matchday squad this season and his ability to play in both defensive and attacking midfield could see him make his full debut. Fletcher has five goals and three assists for the U23s in Premier League 2, having a hand in just over a fifth (21%) of the sides goals.
While throwing all three young midfielders in at once against teams battling for survival isn’t going to aid in their development, giving some form of involvement to them in the next five games will be a much better use of resources than further running Jonny Howson and George Saville into the ground.
Seriously, what else can we learn about those two? Give ’em a break.
Another player who Neil Warnock can’t learn anything more about is Marcus Bettinelli. Yes, he has been a victim of confirmation bias at times this season for certain goals, but the Fulham loanee has become indefensible. The amount of mistakes he’s made are beyond a joke and he simply doesn’t make enough saves.
He’s more vocal than Aysnley Pears and Dejan Stojanovic were for sure, though he doesn’t cut a particularly inspiring figure. For all of his shouting, he has to shoulder some of the blame for the litany of calamitous goals Boro have conceded through poor organisation.
With his contract at Fulham set to run out, Warnock may see it as an easy decision to bring him back on a free, but it wouldn’t be a popular decision.
Bettinelli’s back-up Jordan Archer isn’t exactly an inspiring option either, which has probably been why Bettinelli hasn’t lost his place in the team, and the goalkeeping department needs significantly improving over the summer.
Until then, what have we got to lose by throwing Sol Brynn in nets and seeing what he’s made of? The local ‘keeper was on the bench regularly before Archer’s arrival and would relish the opportunity to get involved for his boyhood club.
Another area of concern, although to a much lesser degree, is at left-back. Marc Bola’s breakout season is one that nobody could have seen coming and os one of the first names on the teamsheet. However, who would replace Bola if his form regresses or he gets injured isn’t as clear because neither of his understudies are defenders.
Marvin Johnson, even if he is offered what would be a well deserved new deal to stay at the club, doesn’t know how to make a tackle. He just runs into people and even more unlikely than Bola’s rise is the fact that Hayden Coulson is being tested as a makeshift number 10.
A man who was offered trials at Bayern Munich and Napoli before joining the Academy setup at Middlesbrough, Williams Kokolo shares some of the same strengths as Bola. He’s quick, game to beat a man and can whip a cross in.
An unused sub in the FA Cup against Brentford, Kokolo has been an integral part of Graeme Lee’s U23 team in Premier League 2, starting 19 out of 20 games.
There are some stumbling blocks for any Boro fans hoping to see a raft of fresh young faces included from tomorrow’s game against QPR. Three of the upcoming matches are against teams trying to stay in the division and while I can’t imagine a single Boro fan is arsed, Neil Warnock will want to show some sportsmanship and “respect” by fielding relatively strong sides.
As well, there’s the issue of money, especially for the loan lads. Boro will be paying a decent wedge for the likes of Bolasie, Kebano, Bettinelli despite splitting costs with their parent clubs while Ashley Fletcher and Britt Assombalonga are seeing out the last weeks of contracts signed on major money. Warnock won’t want them all sitting round getting paid for ‘nowt.
There’s also the potential that some players are still on audition for next season. Mendez-Laing, Kebano and Bolasie haven’t delivered what Warnock would have expected from them but he may still be keen to bring them back, which may rule out other young attackers like Samuel Folarin and Calum Kavanagh from featuring.
Hopefully, some of the kids get to play before the season is out.
Not only would it serve to gauge which of the Academy youngsters might be ready to make the step up to the first team, it would give Boro fans a bit of excitement back and something to discuss in beer gardens this summer if one of Them Young Reds catches fire.
G’wan gaffer, play the kids.
Photo Credits: Middlesbrough Football Club, The Gazette