Dael Fry tries his best to remain measured but before long candour prevails. “Everyone’s really excited,” concedes Middlesbrough’s former England Under-21s centre-half. “The atmosphere around the place is absolutely fantastic, everyone’s buzzing, everyone in the town’s talking about promotion.”
Since Chris Wilder succeeded Neil Warnock as manager in early November, Boro have collected 20 points from nine league games, rising from 15th to sixth in the Championship. They travel to a third-place Blackburn side coached by their former captain, manager and enduring hero Tony Mowbray, on Monday aiming to reinforce suddenly realistic automatic promotion hopes.
Wilder does not really do coy and he has duly galvanised his players with sometimes brutal honesty and vaulting ambition. Euphemism is out as the former Sheffield United manager’s brand of high-energy, high-pressing football revitalises Boro’s squad in front of steadily rising attendances at the Riverside.
At this rate there should be no need for Steve Gibson to pursue any more lawsuits of the sort embroiling Boro’s owner in his attempt to extract around £40m in compensation from Derby, arguing that their circumvention of the EFL’s financial fair play rules denied the Teesside club a play-off place in 2018-19.
To many neutrals – not to mention Boro fans – Gibson’s legal action against a club now under real threat of extinction seems as ill-advised as his decision, in 2009, to sack Gareth Southgate as manager and replace him with Gordon Strachan. Overall, though, the owner has got much more right than wrong at the Riverside and, more than a decade on from the Strachan nadir, Wilder’s installation appears among his most inspired manoeuvres.
Seven wins from the last eight games in all competitions have certainly vindicated the new manager’s decision to switch to a back three increasingly accomplished at moving forward with the ball. If that rearguard is not quite a mirror image of Sheffield United’s once famous overlapping centre-halves, there are distinct similarities.
“Chris has brought that style of play here,” agrees Fry, who generally operates alongside Paddy McNair and Anfernee Dijksteel in a defensive trinity adept at stepping upfield. “We’re all comfortable on the ball and we’re moving it across the back quickly. We’re encouraged to create attacks but, at the same time, we can’t forget our main job is defending. Chris makes sure he gets that message drilled into us.
“He doesn’t want us doing Cruyff turns but I’ve always known I could play out from the back. When I was going away with England when I was a bit younger, you had to pass through the lines and when Chris came in he told me that’s what he wants me to do now. He said he’d make me a better player and he’s done it. He’s given me a lot of confidence, this is the most enjoyable style of football I’ve ever played.”
Wilder has also made a certain C-word taboo. “At the start of the season we were a little bit inconsistent, we’d win one game but then lose two,” explains Fry, who hopes to end up marking Cristiano Ronaldo when Boro visit Manchester United in the fourth round of the FA Cup early next month. “So the manager’s taught us not to be complacent or get too ahead of ourselves.
It’s always about keeping your standards high every day and making sure you take that into games. If you don’t, Chris will nail you
“Even on the training pitch, if there’s something he doesn’t like or that he thinks is sloppy, he’ll make sure he tells us and we put it right, straightaway. It’s always about keeping your standards high every day and making sure you take that in to games. If you don’t, he’ll nail you in the dressing room. The mentality’s really changed, we’re consistent and seeing out games now.”
As at Sheffield United, most training sessions are conducted by Wilder’s assistant, Alan Knill. “He’s been very good, “ says Fry. “He makes everything seem so simple; when we go into a game everybody knows exactly what they’re doing, there’s no confusion.”
Such clarity of thought is perhaps heightened by an awareness that competition for places has intensified this month. Kieran Scott, Boro’s director of football, remains busy, with the acquisition of the strikers Folarin Balogun and Aaron Connolly on loan from Arsenal and Brighton respectively and the signing of Australia midfielder Riley McGree from MLS Charlotte FC, enhancing a newfound sense of expanding horizons.
For the first time since Aitor Karanka’s team won promotion in 2016, supporters are daring to dream that a Premier League place could soon be within touching distance.
“It feels a bit like the year we got promoted last time, I know we’re going to give it a really good go,” agrees the locally born Fry, at 24 a Boro “lifer” . “We can’t get ahead of ourselves, it’s important not to become complacent but, coming from Middlesbrough, I feel so proud to be part of this team at this moment.”