When Matt Crooks signed for the Boro in the summer transfer window, some fans were concerned that signing a towering midfielder from recently relegated Rotherham United would only serve to increase the amount of long balls being fired forward by Neil Warnock’s side.
Crooks also came with a reputation as a nasty shithouse and we had certainly seen that side of him the previous season after a round of Sam Morsy-baiting at the Riverside being followed up by a red card in the reverse fixture.
That image in particular, of Crooks clenching his fists and sneering at Morsy while surrounded by some of his Millers mates, seemed to confirm the feeling that Boro were signing one of the most horrible, piss boiling characters in the Championship.
However, there’s so much more to the 27-year-old than the niggling, winding people up and getting stuck in. In just a few months on Teesside, Boro fans have discovered the star behind the shithouse and found out the truth about the midfielder.
Matt Crooks is sound as fuck.
Whether it’s wrapping an arm around Martin Payero, his charity work for the Jordan Sinnott Foundation Trust, taking part in the Christmas Light Switch On in the town centre or openly discussing his experiences with epilepsy; Matt Crooks has proven to be so much more than a big yellow card machine and has already carved himself out a special place in supporter’s hearts.
It’s also helped that, despite coming from an unfashionable club like Rotherham and physically suiting his “Tree” nickname, Crooks is pretty good at football.
He’s had to play off the striker, wide right, in a midfield three and as a defensive midfielder while also being thrown up top as a last resort for good measure. Whenever called upon, Crooks has rarely put a foot wrong while showing the drive and ability to play well in a number of those positions.
Despite changing the narrative around his signing, his height and physicality would have been a major factor in Neil Warnock picking him up in the summer and Crooks knows how to use it well.
He wins more aerial duels on average (3.4) than Paddy McNair (2.3) who has played a lot in defence this season and Uche Ikpeazu (2.2) who was brought in to fill the targetman role in Warnock’s system.
That aerial ability has been especially useful in winning flick-ons further up the pitch and can hopefully be utilised by Chris Wilder as he looks to make Boro more effective offensively and resolute defensively at set-pieces.
Crooks has also got this baffling couple of seconds of pace in his locker that allows him to bypass defenders and keep moves alive as they fall into the trap of judging a very tall book by its cover. You can see them thinking “he can’t keep up with me, the lanky git” as they try to shepherd the ball out of play before they’re made to look very silly by Our Matt.
The former Northampton and Rangers man’s versatility and all-action performances are best highlighted by the fact that he’s the top scorer at the club with 4 goals so far and is averaging the second most key passes a game (1.4) while also having the joint second highest amount of tackles per game (2.1) of current Boro players.
Even the midfielder’s four goals and two assists have shown the different facets of his game – there’s been headers against Millwall and Barnsley, a booming top corner effort from just inside the box against QPR and a lunging effort to get onto Ikpeazu’s flick on during his home debut against Bristol City.
Those goals have been complimented by two assists that have showcased a cultured side to Crook’s game and we’re not going to give it the old “good touch for a big man” but one of Teesside’s newest heroes has certainly got real technical ability in his big boy boots.
His layoff for McNair’s strike against Sheffield United was full of composure with an opposition player ready to come flying in on him but the star of the show has to be his no-look pass for Watmore’s second goal at the weekend.
That counterattack that was so superbly rounded off by Ginginho lifting the ball over Lee Nicholls in the Terriers net was one of the first real “WOW” moments as a Boro fan in a long time – ironically enough the last probably being Watmore’s goal against Huddersfield last season – and helped Crooks to make a big statement to the new boss.
Though he’s started every game this season barring the game against West Brom which he was suspended for and with 17 of those 19 appearances being for the entire 90 minutes, competition for a place in the Boro midfield is going to be heating up as we roll through December.
Jonny Howson looks like a man reborn at the base of Wilder’s midfield trio, Martin Payero is back available for selection and even with some of Marcus Tavernier’s recent “off games” it’d be a shock to not see him included and four does not go into three.
That’s without mentioning James Lea-Siliki and the potential for Paddy McNair to slot into midfield if and when needed.
Yet, even with a number of options at his disposal, it’d be criminal for Chris Wilder to drop Boro’s front runner for Player of the Season and that extends into the January transfer window.
While the new gaffer will want to bring his own men in to help form the new Boro identity, Crooks has already demonstrated the qualities needed to fulfil one of those midfield roles in Wilder’s system.
He’s got an eye for goal and the movement to be able to get on the end of cutbacks from the wing-backs or overlapping centre-backs, he’s defensively astute enough to cover when those defensive players charge forward and his desire to play his heart out for the team is unquestionable.
The 27-year-old has also marked himself out quickly as a leader in the dressing room, with his heartwarming mentoring of Martin Payero helping the Argentine settle into Championship life with his best performances in a Boro shirt against Peterborough and Cardiff coming alongside the man affectionately known as “Tree”.
Crooks, who is a patron of the Peter Doody Foundation which helps young adults with epilepsy, also has the versatility needed to give Wilder the options to change things up when desired.
There’s been some talk that Crooks is entering George Friend territory because of his lovely nature mixed with his achievements on the pitch and while he’s got plenty of miles to get under his belt to truly be in that conversation, being part of a new-look and exciting Boro side certainly won’t do him any harm in cementing his place as a Teesside terrace favourite.
It’ll remain to be seen whether he’s around long enough to reach the top of the Nice Lads mountain and it’s going to be interesting to see exactly where he figures in Wilder’s plans moving forward, with everyone back fit and with potential for arrivals.
No matter what happens, there’s one thing that is certain, something that isn’t up for debate.
Matt Crooks is sound as fuck.
You can find out more about the Jordan Sinnott Foundation Trust (which was set up in memory of Crook’s late friend and footballer Jordan Sinnott who is the reason Matt wears no.25) and the Peter Doody Foundation in the links below.
Photo Credits: Yorkshire Post, Middlesbrough F.C., The Gazette/Teesside Live