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Fan letter: Why promotion is a genuine possibility under Neil Warnock
Fan letter: Why promotion is a genuine possibility under Neil Warnock
Sunday, 15th Nov 2020 16:01 by Jake Emmerson

As part of our new fan letter series we're invited Middlesbrough supporters to have their say on what makes the bonkers about Boro.

Here Jake Emmerson discusses how the moment that he knew Neil Warnock was going to be a game-changing appointment.

There’s nothing quite like being a Middlesbrough fan.

Personally, I’ve always found it a struggle to know whether to plant myself on the side of optimism, expecting a win from any and every match or to edge towards pessimism, knowing that if my expectations aren’t too high, I won’t be quite as disappointed when the sometimes seemingly inevitable happens.

When Neil Warnock was appointed at the back end of last season, my despair under Woodgate had led me to the point to of mentally preparing myself for life in League One, dealing with salary caps and having to carry out yet another complete rebuild of the squad. The football had been so poor overall, the promises that Woodgate had made at the start of the season about playing attacking football had been largely dispelled and the players were completely downtrodden.

Despite being pleased at Warnock’s appointment, it wasn’t until the Millwall game that I began to feel confident that Middlesbrough would survive the drop. I shared the same sentiments of other fans that while I was worried Warnock’s appointment could turn into a similar situation to Pulis, where the team got results but were completely uninspiring (before an aging team, bereft of pace and creativity was left for the next manager to inherit), I was hopeful that Gibson wouldn’t make the same mistake second time around.
By the time Gibson confirmed that Warnock would be in charge for the 2020/21 season I was feeling far more optimistic.

Who better to take charge in a season that was going to have so many uncertain aspects with the COVID situation going on? Who better to get the squad back to basics and put some confidence back into the players before handing it on to someone who could hopefully push us back into playoff or promotion contention? The only other candidate I considered to be a good option was Chris Hughton who was still without a club at that point, but Warnock seemed a solid choice.

Transfer windows have become another classic example of where it is easy to get carried away as a Boro fan with the rumours links that fly around and the end result to the overwhelming majority of them.

This window was no exception and while everyone knew Boro weren’t going to be spending big, it was still frustrating to see early targets like Charlie Goode, Joe Williams and Kieffer Moore finding their way to other clubs as well as seeing a late move for Yannick Bolasie falling through at the last minute after seeming almost a certainty.

The transfer business that was finally done appeared solid, plugging some of the most obvious gaps within the squad, but neither the fans nor Neil Warnock were under any illusion that the squad did not still lack a lot of depth; particularly worrying in what is already a punishing league that was to be pushed into an even tighter schedule.

Although Warnock had been in charge for the final 8 games of the previous season, I thought that the Watford game was the first real opportunity for him to display what he was about, what formation and tactics he wanted to play with a team he’d had a few weeks to drill his mentality into.

Key dressing room figures George Friend and Adam Clayton were gone and there was a clean slate for any players that had been struggling with form the season before. Despite the loss against the newly relegated side, I felt happy with what I’d seen.

The continuation of the long standing issue of creativity in front of goal was still there but the organisation, the determination to win every ball, the fact we actually looked like potentially getting back into the game after going behind were all major improvements on what had been seen for the vast majority of the previous season.

As the game ended, there were plenty of things that you could feel pessimistic about. The lack of creativity and goals, the lack of options from the bench (by this point neither Akpom nor Roberts had signed), the way the goal was conceded or the fact that Marvin Johnson was playing left wing back after some poor performances there at the back end of the previous season.

But by the end, my main overriding feeling was that if Middlesbrough played the way they had that night all season, they would stay up easily, maybe even push for top half.

Fast forward to now and we reach the second international break of the season in a place where I doubt many fans would’ve imagined us to be at the start of the season, let alone when Warnock was first appointed.

The idea of progressing to become a team that could challenge for the play-offs in a season or two suddenly looks like it could happen sooner than many would have expected. Barring the Barnsley defeat in the cup, a competition that was always going to be a stretch for such a small squad, Middlesbrough haven’t lost a game since Watford.

They have kept 6 clean sheets in 10 games, only conceded once from open play (from 5 goals conceded all season) and find ourselves just outside the play-off positions.
Warnock has developed a spine that has really come into its own and that can play comfortably in either a 5-3-2 or a 4-3-3 formation.

There has been massive improvements from Anfernee Dijksteel and Marc Bola, a real regain in confidence for Dael Fry and Paddy McNair and the whole attitude of the team seems to have shifted into a group that is enjoying their football and that are determined to work hard for each other. Marcus Tavernier has been a great example of this, playing in unfamiliar left wing back and no. 10 roles but still giving everything for the team in each game.

He is only second to McNair in duels won in the whole team, despite preferring to play in roles further up the pitch. Hayden Coulson has also started to break into the team on the back of some good performances in training which has been very encouraging.

Fans will hope that with more game time, he can return to the form that won him the young player of the year award for last season.

Of course, there are still issues and as Warnock stresses nearly every game, it’s important that fans do not get ahead of themselves.

There are still issues in actually getting the ball in the opposition net, a fact that was especially highlighted in the Blackburn game; a game that Middlesbrough should probably have won given their performance.

The squad is still very small and a couple of injuries in the wrong positions could put the team into a lot of difficulties, particularly if McNair or Dijksteel were to miss games. The two of them have arguably been Middlesbrough’s best players so far this season, McNair in particular has been superb in the centre of defence.

It may be possible that more bodies can be brought in come January but with the financial situation resulting from the COVID pandemic, this is by no means guaranteed and there are still another 11 league games to be played before the new year (including an eye-watering 8 games in December). Until then all fans can really do is hope for luck when it comes to injuries and match fitness.

Overall, this season has been a huge encouragement with the results on their own enough to inspire optimism, especially compared to where Middlesbrough were when Warnock arrived.

The performances have massively improved, the confidence is back for so many players and with the boost of Grant Hall’s return (and hopefully a return to match fitness for Patrick Roberts) after the break means that Middlesbrough can look forward to a tough match ahead against Norwich and a busy schedule thereafter.

As Warnock has said, it is important not to be hasty in assuming play-offs are a definite prospect, with so many games to go and so many things that can potentially go wrong, but based on what has happened so far, there’s no reason to believe that it couldn’t happen.

If the standard of the defensive performances remains the same and the luck in front a goal improves a little, there is a definite possibility that Middlesbrough can challenge at the top end of the table by the end of the season.

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