The wind of change is blowing through the Riverside and there are hopes that with the help of the club’s Premier League windfall Garry Monk is building a team to blow away the Championship this season. After last season’s punt on projects, Boro supporters have been pleased to see the arrival of tried and tested players though the door at Hurworth – though they would I imagine also quite like to see some of our brighter prospects from the the much hailed Category One academy storm their way into contention for starting places. When Garry Monk arrived at the club he stated he wanted to give a clear pathway for young players to make the transition into the Boro first-team squad. The recent pre-season friendlies have given opportunities for some of Boro’s promising young players to shine and impress the new boss with the likes Dael Fry and Harry Chapman, fresh from England duty at the FIFA under-20 World Cup squad in South Korea, notably hoping to catch the eye.
Last season Dael Fry was on loan at Rotherham but ended up only making a dozen appearances after slipping down the pecking order – clearly he has the attributes and potential to become a more than decent centre-back but he needs a run of games at a high level to make that leap forward. The question is whether he’ll get enough opportunities at Boro this season, otherwise surely another loan spell is required. Though it becomes increasingly hard for the player to imagine his future remains at club if he is then expected to break through in the Premier League next season instead.
Harry Chapman (or is it now the more trendy Harri as in Harrison) is another lively winger who has impressed at the academy and went out on loan last season to Sheffield United but also had his season cut short at the Blades to only a dozen appearances due to injury. Again he’s at a stage in his career as he approaches his twentieth birthday where he needs to start playing week-in week-out if he is to reach his potential. The worry is if he stays at Boro this season he’ll be in the queue behind some expensive purchases and loan players from top PL clubs.
Should the players stay and fight for a place in the hope that the can take their chance and impress the new manager? Or should they go on loan until January with the objective of building their reputations and look to break into the Boro team for the second half of the season?
Connor Ripley will have noted the arrival of Darren Randolph from West Ham on the basis that he’s moving to get first-team football to secure his place in the Republic of Ireland’s squad ahead of next year’s World Cup – plus the club have paid West Ham £5m and offered the keeper £27k a week, which looks a little pricey to risk a splinter injury on a Championship bench. He will I imagine view that piece of business as a signal that now is not his time to occupy the Boro number one shirt – perhaps he’ll be given the role of second-choice keeper as he gazes mischievously from the bench while wondering if Randolph is only one rash sliding challenge away on a wet and windy afternoon in South Yorkshire from handing him the gloves.
Perhaps a lesser known youngster who impressed in parts against Rochdale was Marcus Tavernier – he’s a pacey left-sided player who has also played at left-back – with many of our protesting lefties marching out of the exit door, he may see the possibility of breaking though into the first-team this term. He must know Garry Monk is looking for dynamic players and it seems Downing didn’t meet that requirement and Gaston’s agent has admitted his client’s future probably lies elsewhere, even if the player himself is trying his best to give the impression he’s a model professional – though they certainly threw away the mould for that particular model some time ago.
Another young talent who replaced starter Adama for the last quarter-of-an-hour at Rochdale was lively Finnish prospect Mikael Soisalo, who joined the Boro academy in January from Tampere. It appears he’s quite well regarded at the club and even managed to score in the previous friendly at Mansfield. It’s possible he may force himself into the squad and it looks like Monk is certainly having a good look at him ahead of the start of the season. A lot may depend on whether the Boro cheque book has a few more unused stubs left in it – perhaps when it comes down to hard choices the hot prospects of the likes of Liverpool may get the nod over our own molten steel variants.
The adage that if you’re good enough then you’re old enough is quite often trotted out – but we seem to err on the side of caution these days at Boro when it comes to academy players. They almost have to be better than some of the ‘projects’ that the club have thrown millions at of late before they will even be considered. One wonders if Adama had been from our own academy whether he would be entertaining the prospect of his third loan spell at somewhere like Preston or Sheffield United until he’d worked on his crossing a bit more.
Ben Gibson wasn’t by any means an overnight success, but grew into the player he now is over time and is possibly on the verge of swelling the club’s coffers by around £30m should he decide to move on to bigger things. Incidentally, he had to leave the field yesterday with what looked like a broken nose, though at least the incident seems to have shown a novel way to tone down the Ramsdens advertising hoarding by liberally covering the white band with blood – whether this will inspire commercially sensitive fashion-conscious supporters to punch themselves in the nose as they de-sponsor their replica shirts is too early to say.
Sometimes perhaps we expect more from our own home-grown prospects and seemingly leave room in the squad for average journey-man-like players just because they were bought with Euros. Though the flip-side to that argument is perhaps we imagine our home-grown players to be better than they actually are. It’s hard to think of any of the recent fringe academy players who have gone on to impress elsewhere. Maybe you actually need a group of players who break into the team together that will spur each other on and be inspired by the shared journey. It’s a long time since the days where many in the first XI consisted of our best young talent – Downing, Morrison, Cattermole, Wheater, Bates, Johnson et al seemed to inspire perhaps less gifted players to rise to the challenge as the likes of Taylor, Davies and others performed above themselves in their company.
Let’s also not forget how having a core of players who have come through the ranks would effect the dynamic of the dressing room and create a strong team spirit, which may give you that extra five percent on the pitch when it matters. The recruitment process last season left a lot to be desired as a disparate bunch of projects failed to gel into anything either collectively or individually – they’re are now being shipped out and are leaving berths to be filled. It’s to Monk’s credit that he’s taking a serious look at what talent he’s got coming through – this season may be an opportunity to bring several through as it will no doubt be harder next year to make the leap if Boro hopefully gain promotion.
Whether our squad is built from the outside or the inside may not matter to many if we ‘smash the league’ but there is something more satisfying and it instills a sense of pride when you see the core of a team that had ‘made in Teesside’ stamped through it.