The last time Chris Wilder stood in the dugout at the Riverside Stadium he oversaw one of the worst opposition displays seen at Middlesbrough in recent memory.
Then in charge of Sheffield United and coming off an opening day defeat to Swansea City, Wilder would have been hoping to see his team expose some perceived frailties in a Boro side who’d looked off the pace and defensively suspect in their first game of the season against Millwall.
Only a chaotic final few minutes at The New Den had seen Tony Pulis’s men rescue a point after finding themselves 2-0 down until the 87th minute.
Wilder selected an unchanged team from the defeat at Swansea, with plenty of his well trusted lieutenants involved, players who’d gained Wilder’s trust after finishing 10th in Sheffield United’s first season back in the Championship in 7 years.
Enda Stevens, Jack O’Connell, Chris Basham, George Baldock, John Lundstram, Leon Clarke and Lee Evans had all featured regularly in the previous two seasons for Wilder and they were joined by summer signings Dean Henderson and experienced forward David McGoldrick.
Sheffield United were a well-drilled, physical team that had shown real grit and togetherness to establish themselves back in the Championship. They were a team of “proper” men that looked able to give any side in the division a tough test.
That made it even more shocking as Boro, dealing with the sales of Patrick Bamford and Ben Gibson and the impending departure of Adama Traore, made Chris Wilder’s team look like eleven lost toddlers tottering aimlessly around the pitch while flying into a 3-0 lead inside the first 25 minutes.
To call it men against boys would do a disservice to some of the junior teams in the TJFA.
The Riverside should have seen its first goal of the season barely a minute into the game when Britt Assombalonga turned Ryan Shotton’s low cross into the path of a rampaging Jonny Howson near the penalty spot, but the midfielder could only hit it straight down Dean Henderson’s throat.
Boro fans, enjoying one of those storybook summer nights that only come around at the start of the football season where the setting sun meets the floodlights, only had to wait six more minutes to see their side take the lead.
A corner from Lewis Wing, making his home debut, was nodded on by Dael Fry to the back post where Martin Braithwaite stabbed it home. This came during the Danish international’s mini-revival on Teesside, as the forward scored 3 in the opening four games of the season, showing the talent that Boro had forked out £9 million for the previous summer.
Another player who looked every inch as advertised in this game was Aden Flint. The enormous defender, who had scored 19 Championship goals in three years for Bristol City, had been drafted in to supplement Tony Pulis’s defensive options but also to provide a much needed threat at set-pieces.
The watching Red Army could have been forgiven for thinking Flint was going to become a set-piece cheat code that season when he crashed another Wingy corner past Henderson in the 18th minute to double the lead. They could have also been forgiven for thinking they were going to “smash the league” when Downing’s volley skipped over Egan and Henderson to make it 3-0 after 25 minutes.
Downing celebrated with a grin and wide-armed shrug in front of the South Stand. We couldn’t believe it either, Stewy.
Even though that would be the final goal of the game doesn’t mean Sheffield United came away from the Riverside that night with any credit. They didn’t rally and stop a potential cricket score through effort and fighting for their pride. Boro simply took their foot off the pedal, switched cruise control on and relaxed.
Clarke and McGoldrick both had chances in the second half to restore some respect to the scoreline but by then Tony Pulis’s and his players were already thinking of the weekend’s match against Birmingham and the return of the robotic charlatan Garry Monk.
It was the same in the stands. By half-time, everyone was knackered from celebrating and partying. It was basically a training exercise in game management from that point and everyone was thankful to hear the referees whistle at full time.
Sheffield United’s performance had been laughable. Their inability to defend against crosses and set-pieces had been laughable and Wilder’s suggestion that his side had actually “missed the best chances of the game” was even more so.
The only thing that could have been funnier that night would be if someone had told the Boro fans (and even the most die-hard Blades) leaving the ground that night that Sheffield United would get promoted at the end of the season. Yerjokinarnyer wouldn’t have done it justice.
Except they did. After that dismal defeat Wilder’s men won four on the spin including a 4-1 battering of Aston Villa and would only get stronger as the season wore on.
In the reverse fixture at Brammall Lane in January, United totally outclassed our boys and would eventually finish six points ahead of 3rd-placed Leeds. The defensive issues were completely wiped out as the Blades tied with Boro for the tightest defence in the league with Dean Henderson keeping 21 clean sheets and conceding only 41 goals. Wilder and United would then go on to take the Premier League by storm.
That turnaround should provide both a cause for excitement and a need for patience in the ranks of the Red Army as we prepare to welcome Wilder to the Riverside on Saturday for his first game in charge since being appointed Boro boss. As he showed during his time at Brammall Lane, the 54-year-old can cultivate a winning mentality and provide supporters with thrilling football.
The former Northempton town manager, along with his coaching staff, has also proven adept at improving players and getting the most out of previously unfashionable names. That’s a quality that will be hugely important given Boro’s steps towards a new way of recruiting talent.
9 of the starting 11 that were demolished at the Riverside that evening went on to be virtual ever presents in the promotion push and would also form the nucleus of the side that would finish 9th in the Premier League. Barely any of them looked capable of lacing Lewis Wing’s boots, who’d just been brought up from non-league, that night never mind challenging for a spot in the Europa League.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the performance of John Egan. The defender, who’d just signed from Brentford three weeks prior, was ran ragged by Assombalonga and Braithwaite. The Irishman was bullied by Flint at corners and was culpable for Boro’s third, having let Shotton’s cross drop over his head to Downing without any challenge. Egan looked totally bewildered by his role in the middle of the back three and was quickly written off by some United fans.
Egan would only miss two games that season, acting as the gatekeeper in Sheffield United’s overlapping centre-half system, before appearing 67 times in the Premier League for the Blades leading to interest from Everton this summer. He hasn’t missed a single minute so far under Slavisa Jokanovic either despite the differences in setup between the Serb and Wilder.
That is just one of a number of cases that reinforce the need for patience as Wilder and his team get to work. If Boro lose on Saturday or don’t suddenly burst into life and replicate the swashbuckling endeavour of his Blades team after a few games, don’t be surprised and PLEASE nobody come out with “we should’ve stuck with Warnock”.
The Sheffield United system, if that’s the route Wilder goes down, is far more complex than what the team became used to under Warnock. Training, overseen by Alan Knill and Matt Prestridge, is notoriously intense and is a “shock to the system” for new players as Oli McBurnie told The Athletic last year. That is topped up by gruelling gym workouts and a recovery work to allow players to achieve and maintain their physical peak.
It will take the squad time to get up to scratch and a change in manager might not necessarily result in the immediate bounce that fans are hoping for. We’ve heard the phrase “long-term” a lot over the past week and that’s exactly what this appointment needs to be viewed as.
However, if they can hit the ground running and latch onto the goodwill that the new gaffer will surely be extended, anything can happen and a good run in the winter months will make those glances at booking.com for hotels near Wembley more regular. As Wilder said recently “we dare to dream”.
That’s all Chris Wilders’s promotion hopes were when he left the Riverside Stadium that night in August 2018, after all.
Photo Credits: Reuters, Teesside Live/The Gazette