Isaiah Jones rightfully collected a number of individual awards for his performances last season.
Named as the club’s Player’s Player of the Year, Young Player of the year and the RF08 Player of the Season to name a few, Jones’s breakthrough campaign was one of the most thrilling storylines in Boro’s 2021/22 saga as he became crucial to our promotion hopes.
At times, it felt like Jones was winning games single-handedly, especially during the winter period where he was instrumental in the victories over Swansea, Blackpool, Mansfield and Reading.
Give the ball to Izzy, let him run down the wing and make the Boro sing, it’ll be alright seemed to be the game plan (it was a little bit more complicated than that).
The 22-year-old finished his maiden campaign as a Boro player with 8 assists and a goal, his electric ability soon being the answer to the question “Why have Middlesbrough loaned out Djed Spence?”, as the former Tooting & Mitcham product became one of the first names on the team sheet for Chris Wilder’s side.
Spence on the other hand will be leaving the club permanently this summer, with the asking price reported to be north of £15m.
Big things will be expected of Jones next season and he will be integral to Wilder’s plans. However, the star man will need a supporting actor alongside him to get the most out of his performances.
Jones influence on results started to wane as the season came to it’s conclusion and that is something the club will want to address over the summer. This was in part to opposition team’s becoming aware of the imbalance on Boro’s flanks, meaning they could put more men on the right to counteract Jones, which should be nullified by the signing of a true left wing-back.
The other reason is because Isaiah Jones hadn’t played a second of football at this level before being asked to play 3268 minutes in one of the most physically demanding, competitive leagues in the sport.
Only Jonny Howson, Paddy McNair, Marcus Tavernier and Matty Crooks played more minutes in the Championship for Boro last term.
In simple terms, the lad was knackered and understandably so. Even during his loan spell at Queen of the South Jones only played 12 games in the Scottish Championship and SFA Cup. He nearly quadrupled that in all competitions for Boro this season with 47 appearances.
Wilder and co. will look to lighten the burden on Izzy this summer by signing someone who can cover for him and compete for a starting spot. In a system that places heavy emphasis on the wing-backs, there needs to be an alternative on the right hand side to Jones and not just for fitness reasons.
When things weren’t going well for Boro in the second half of last season, Wilder was unable to really mix things up on the right flank with neither Lee Peltier or Anfernee Dijksteel providing the attacking threat needed for the role.
An additional natural right wing-back would also allow for Jones to plot up on the left side from time to time, to truly terrify Championship defences.
Though Joe Gibson will likely be given an opportunity to impress in pre-season, the recruitment team will have eyes on a number of external alternatives, with Gibson likely to see more game time on loan in a crucial period in his development.
As in January, I am standing on my dining table and banging the drum for Kane Wilson who scooped at the League 2 Player of the Season award after a sensational campaign for Forest Green Rovers. Just hope someone at the club can hear me.
Wilson was the main driving force behind FGR’s promotion push as they secured promotion to League 1 for the first time, delivering a whopping 13 assists with 15 big chances created and 3 goals alongside averaging 2.1 key passes per game across 45 League 2 appearances.
Lightning quick and direct, Wilson stretched League 2 defences to breaking point, before delivering goalscoring opportunities on a plate to strikers Jamille Matt and Matt Stevens. Defences were further exposed by the fact that the 22-year-old is equally adept with both feet, meaning he can either beat a man and cross from the byline on his right foot or cut inside to whip the ball in on his left foot.
As the right wing-back in Rob Edwards’s 3-4-1-2 system, Wilson also used his athleticism to make an impact defensively, ranking 5th for tackles per game (1.4) at the Gloucestershire outfit.
His physical abilities meant he was able to cover ground quickly and nick the ball away cleanly from opposition attackers, only being booked 4 times in his 45 games.
The former West Brom academy graduate has nearly 200 appearances under his belt already across League 1+2 and is out of contract this summer, with Rovers top brass resigned to losing him amid plenty of Championship interest.
Bristol City have been one of Wilson’s main admirers as have boyhood club West Brom, while Rob Edwards has now taken over at Watford and will need more modern fullback options to implement his style of play successfully at Vicarage Road. If Boro want to make my dreams come true, they will have to act quickly.
There will also be question marks over whether Wilson can make the transition to Championship football and he may be more inclined to join a team that doesn’t have one of the best players in the league currently occupying his position.
Another player who is out of contract this summer but does have the benefit of being a proven Championship calibre talent is James Bree. Set to leave Luton after an outstanding season, Bree mostly played at right wing-back as The Hatters made a surprise run at the play-offs, with the 24-year-old being a key factor on both sides of the ball.
Bree, who started his career at Aston Villa, was one of the top performers in the Luton squad – averaging 1.5 key passes per game, creating 11 big chances, coming fourth overall for tackles per game (1.5) and recording 6 assists.
For key passes, Bree was only bettered by Robert Snodgrass (1.6) which shows his influence on Luton’s creative output, frequently sparking moves down the right flank.
Having made 105 Championship appearances across three seasons for Luton, Bree has the experience and proven track record to make an impact on Boro’s promotion hopes next season.
Though his 20/21 season was hampered by injury, the wing-back has been otherwise reliable for Luton during their time in the Championship playing 39 times in 19/20 and 44 times in this past campaign.
While not as direct as Jones, Bree is capable of beating his man but his real talents lie in his delivery as seen by taking over the set-piece responsibilities at Kenilworth Road from Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall after he returned to parent club Leicester. That would also provide a back-up plan for Chris Wilder if Paddy McNair wasn’t on the pitch.
Yet, like Kane Wilson, after a breakthrough season where Bree cemented himself as one of the best wing-backs in the division he may opt for a team where a guaranteed first-team place is on offer from the moment he walks through the door.
Chiedozie Ogbene would likely be more open to being part of the competition as it would be a step up the ladder for the Rotherham man who recently told the Irish Examiner that “they know I am quite ambitious and aware of me wanting to reach the next level” when he was quizzed about his future while on international duty.
Ogbene, who recently turned 25, played on the right of Rotherham’s 3-5-2 formation as the Millers’ continued their endless cycle of Championship relegation-League One promotion, securing promotion on the final day.
After missing the majority of his sides’ Championship season, Ogbene returned with a bang in the third tier, given a new role within Paul Warne’s set-up to make the most of his pace and dribbling skills. The Rep. of Ireland international played 45 times in the league and repaid his manager’s faith in him by creating 13 big chances and scoring 3 goals.
Due to his speed and directness, Ogbene is also an incredibly foulable player (3 of his 5 assists are actually from winning penalties), which would provide Boro with plenty of set-piece opportunities.
Ogbene, who counts Brentford and Cork City as former clubs, does leave a lot to be desired defensively (some of his defensive stats barely scratch the 20th percentile for footballers) though this can be coached up under the watchful eyes of Chris Wilder and Alan Knill.
With Rotherham looking to end the cycle and establish themselves as a Championship club they will demand a decent fee for Ogbene, believed to be £750k-£1m, if anyone wants to secure his services for next season.
Another option for Boro who would come at a cheaper price lies north of the border in Scotland. I KNOW IT’S SCARY, I STILL HAVE NIGHTMARES ABOUT WILLO FLOOD BUT JUST BARE WITH ME.
Hibs fans endured a poor season by their standards, finishing 8th out of 12 teams in the SPL, though things could have been worse without Chris Cadden bombing down the right wing.
Earning the club’s Player of the Season award, Cadden is a man with boundless energy and drive, which is a non-negotiable in Chris Wilder’s team. He’s also a very similar crosser to Jonesy, able to hit the ball low and hard into the sweet spot between the goalkeeper and penalty spot.
Cadden doesn’t jump off the page statistically (just 3 goals + 3 assists last season) though some of that is down to the level of player around him at Hibernian. He impressed enough in the SPL to make his omission from the Scotland squad for the World Cup qualifying play-off a glaring point of contention for many Scottish fans on social media.
At 25, Cadden enters a time in his career where his next move will likely be his biggest and although he is set to be offered a new deal by new manager Lee Johnson at Easter Road, he only has one year remaining on his current deal. That extension hasn’t been tabled yet which could leave the door open to a raid, led by Chris Wilder and Kieran Scott.
Both men will be incredibly busy this summer, as will Neil Bausor, with a number of positions needing to be either revamped or supplemented by new arrivals. If finances have to be reigned in to allow the big money to be spent on premium positions, a loan move for Kaine Kesler Hayden could be a potential penny saver without having to compromise on ability.
Kesler, an England U20 international, has all of the tools needed to be a modern day wing-back. Rapid, defensively sound, intelligent in attack and with the gas tank needed to constantly motor up and down the pitch, the 19-year-old mightily impressed in two separate loan spells last season.
Spending the first half of the campaign at Swindon, Kesler Hayden made 21 appearances for The Robins, the highlight of which was a mightily impressive showing against Man City in the FA Cup.
Such was his rate of progression at Swindon, parent club Aston Villa recalled Kesler in January to move him up a league, with Milton Keynes the destination. Again, Kesler impressed in League One, playing 17 times for Liam Manning’s side who made it into the play-offs before being dispatched by Wycombe.
An exciting dribbler (attempting 5 per game with 49.7% success), Kesler shares similarities with Kane Wilson in being able to cross the ball with either foot and from both the byline and deep. A loan move to the Championship seems to be the logical step in the development for the 19-year-old and he would certainly suit Boro’s style of play.
However, Boro may not want a loanee threatening Isaiah Jones’s own development and vice versa for Villa as they may want to send Kesler to a club where he can play a guaranteed amount of minutes. Gerrard’s former #2 Michael Beale has recently taken over at QPR and may be viewed as a better fit for the youngster.
Photo Credits: Gloucester Post, Bristol Post, Luton Town FC, Irish Mail, Swindon Advertiser