When Robert Louis Stevenson completed the first draft of his now world famous Gothic novella “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, the Scottish literary great could never have imagined that his title characters would become part of everyday language, never mind that the phrase would become synonymous with a football team from the North-East of England.
Even if you haven’t read the story or watched the many TV and film adaptions of Stevenson’s work, we all know the tale and have likely used it to describe something or someone with two very different sides to them.
It certainly became a favourite of Boro fans and the local press to describe the Boro under Neil Warnock, with the former boss admitting on more than one occasion that he wasn’t always sure which version of his team would turn up.
Terrific performances that showed heart, desire and cohesion were too often followed up a couple of days later by defeats peppered with mistakes and a lack of understanding.
That flip-flop nature and lack of a clear identity didn’t start with Warnock or only consume the players either. For too long Middlesbrough Football Club has been stuck in a continuous cycle of appointing young attack-focused coaches only to fall back at the first sign of crisis to safety first veteran managers.
That has created the need for constant squad rebuilding as more technically able players are swapped out for physically imposing shithouses and vice-versa. It means that, right now, nobody really knows what the Boro are trying to be.
It’s time for Jekyll and Hyde to be laid to rest and Boro to form a new, clear identity but what does that look like? What do Boro fans want that to look like? I asked the question on Twitter yesterday and thought it’d be interesting to see how people’s hopes are matching up to the club, as things stand.
@j3cK_b responded with “A plan that’s identifiable. A structure up and down the club that makes sense. A balanced squad that is utilised with a clear pathway and integration from the academy. An alignment from manager and recruitment eg. if we miss out on a target, target b should be of same mould”.
That has to be the end goal and Boro now have two key men in post to shape that future.
With the appointments of both Chris Wilder and Kieran Scott as manager and Head of Football respectively, Steve Gibson is attempting to create a structure that will outlast both of those men and potentially himself by forming a clear identity and way of working at the club.
Making that sustainable and successful would put an end to the costly, ineffective bi-annual personality changes that have happened in the dugout and amongst the playing staff.
While Chris Wilder has been brought in with a view to “the short-term, mid-term and long-term” according to Scott, it’s really the long-term aspect of the appointment that was the deciding factor in bringing the former Sheffield United gaffer to Teesside.
Boro fans are rightly going to be excited about what the 54-year-old can achieve this season, with a squad seemingly well-stocked for his brand of football, but Wilder’s overall success will go beyond this season.
The new boss has already hinted at this with plenty of talk about having a “long-term vision in terms of getting things in place so we can move forward and hopefully be consistent with everything”.
We’ve also seen him name-check Josh Coburn and Isaiah Jones be handed a new contract which should give hope to the likes of Calum Kavanagh, Sol Brynn, Zach Hemming and Williams Kokolo that there is a pathway to become part of the first team squad.
Wilder is a man that prides himself on longevity and leaving clubs in better places than he first found them. He looks to energise and connect the supporters to the club in one big family. Of course, that’s helped by success and winning football matches, but he’s helped to form an immediately recognisable style wherever he has been.
Though plenty of fans will be expecting a replication of his successful system at Sheffield United and we’ve already been absolutely battered over the head with the term overlapping centre-backs, there are some major pitfalls to that 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation that were regularly exploited last season as the Blades were relegated from the Premier League.
After being bamboozled by Sheffield United’s wing-backs and central defenders popping up in bizarre positions in the final third, Premier League teams realised they could counteract a lot of United’s attacking threat by simply man-marking the wing-backs and Oliver Norwood, the midfielder Wilder tasked with orchestrating the passing game. This cut off a lot of regular passing lanes and made Wilder’s side less dangerous going forward.
This, coupled with Jack O’Connell only being able to appear twice through injury, made Sheffield United easier to pass through and attack as there was less fear of being overloaded on the break.
The injury to O’Connell also meant that Ethan Ampadu, who was far less familiar with the system as a loanee, was asked to play a crucial role that he struggled with. There is also more teams lining up in the Championship with 3 man defences and wing-backs which makes it easier to defend and deal with the overloads brought about by Wilder’s Sheff U vintage.
Wilder himself has already repeatedly mentioned that “we have to be versatile”. Having a recognisable playing style doesn’t mean having to be exclusively wedded to one formation due to the weaknesses of all formations and the ever changing trends and progressions in the sport.
It will be the philosophy and attitude of the team, rather than just the formation, that will be most important to fans.
As @Jooky85 said “For me, it’s not so much style but qualities. I want to see us dominate teams with the ball, so high possesion; and I want to see us impose ourselves on teams rather than passively react”.
That fits well with @HairyTraveller1 who wants to see “a team that’s on the front foot from kick-off. Sure we’ll lose games but not without fight or surrendering. Pride in the Shirt”.
That, to me, sounds like an ideal team and Wilder echoed that when discussing the Boro team of ’86 who the gaffer faced regularly in the late 80s.
Of a team that included club legends Tony Mowbray, Stuart Ripley and Bernie Slaven, Wilder said “I think when you look back at that team, it was a talented team that had hunger and desire about them. That, for me is an ideal team. They had quality and a way of playing but wanted to be competitive”.
Looking to take the Spirit of Teesside from marketing slogan to team ethos would be a good first step.
After two weeks of training, the new manager will be under no illusion that this current squad lacks talent, hunger or desire. No matter the comments on performance, it was never a case of the players not giving everything. It’s a lazy Northern cliche that we’re all “hard-working proper people” and that we like to see that from our team.
That’s the bare minimum for any players and anybody not prepared to do that will not be brought forward by Kieran Scott when talk turns to recruitment and Wilder himself has stated that the minimum expectation is “100% effort”.
In terms of the present and the future, the manager has said that “technically, we want good footballers that can play who can dominate the ball and dominate possession and create chances”.
Although this season Boro have only averaged 44.8% of possession in a game it was more down to instruction than inability. They’ve shown repeatedly that they’re able to play enjoyable, effective football when they’ve tried to keep it on the deck.
The likes of Marcus Tavernier, Martin Payero, Paddy McNair and Andraz Sporar will be relishing working under Wilder while less emphasis on immediate long balls may help James Lea Siliki settle into midfield.
That trio of signings in Payero, Sporar and Siliki also show Kieran Wilder’s demand for “technically good footballers” marry up with Kieran Scott and the recruitment department’s objectives.
Wilder’s “words are easy” has been my favourite quote of his so far because we’ve had so much shit covered in glitter and many false promises over the years but if everything goes to plan, we’re looking at a forward-thinking team that gets on the front foot immediately, playing attractive football and fighting for the shirt.
That’ll be complimented by astute transfer business to replenish the ranks and make finding a “Boro player” a streamlined experience that focuses on specific attributes. That’ll extend to the youngsters who will fit the mould and be given the opportunity to transition from the Academy to the first team if they’re good enough.
That will also be mirrored when targeting new coaches and managers. There will be a Boro blueprint and only staff that fit the criteria will be considered, not just because their face is recognisable or their name value fits.
From Jekyll and Hyde to a team with an easy to spot and understand way of playing, recruiting and acting now and in the future.
Not too much to ask for then.
If that, or something close to that can be achieved, it will be a brilliant ride along the way. That will bring the positivity and good times back to the Riverside as it should “get bums on seats and then off them in excitement” as long-term friends of the site @Smithy_MFC84 and @MomasThorgan are hoping for, with Tom also adding that he’s just looking for a sustained “period of positivity”.
Another of our pals @Ben_Nicholls97 is looking to the long-term and noted that having enjoyable football to watch will also “make the younger kids come back and keep the Riverside rocking”. While we’re all getting caught up discussing building foundations for years to come, it’s that aspect of the club that could most benefit from this change in direction.
Walk-up ticket prices at the Riverside are terrible. We simply don’t do enough to attract people to come to spontaneously attend a game or pick a few throughout the season.
Season ticket prices are actually quite reasonable but unless you’re someone who goes no matter what or you’ve been indoctrinated from birth, getting your feet wet is a costly experience and when the team are struggling or serving up bland football, it’s understandable why many fans only turn up for “the big games”.
Having a team that is winning and winning in exciting fashion is only going to help. Wilder wants to make the Riverside an intimidating place to go and we all know it can be overwhelming on the big occasions – just ask Brighton – but it’s the cold winter nights or the unfashionable Saturday games against smaller clubs where the Riverside struggles to roar.
Some of the dust and cobwebs have already been shaken off this season with the stadium in full voice so with bigger crowds and football that can set the town on fire, we can rise to the challenge and make our stadium a daunting date in the diary for other teams.
There is a need to temper expectations as well. We’re building foundations not getting over the finishing line. We have to remember that we’ve hammered home words like “long-term” and “future” so much since the appointments of both Kieran Scott and Chris Wilder. Those things won’t come to fruition overnight, if they do happen successfully at all.
@BoroLee86 wasn’t even thinking that far ahead when he said “I’d just like to go to a game and be excited or even enthused to be there. I can start from there”.
So can I mate. That starts on Saturday.
Bring it on.
Photo Credits: Teesside Live/The Gazette, The Northern Echo, The Yorkshire Post, Middlesbrough F.C.