• Tom Muldowney

Boro Stories | Patrick Roberts - Right Man, Wrong Time?

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

Very few players made the most of Jonathan Woodgate’s ill-fated tenure as Middlesbrough manager. Djed Spence and Hayden Coulson certainly did, there could be arguments made for Ashley Fletcher and Lewis Wing, but for the most part, Woodgate’s players did not have the best of times under his stewardship (which is something that we fans can relate to).

Even players who have thrived before and since, like Dael Fry and Jonny Howson, had a tough time with Woody at the helm.

So there were very few players who could complain when Woodgate looked to the transfer market when the window opened in January last year.

As with the majority of Woodgate’s year at the helm, the results of his shopping spree were more miss than hit. Goalkeeper Dejan Stojanović has yet to convince in any of his 8 appearances before heading out on loan, and few tears were shed when Harold Makoudi returned to Saint-Étienne after 7 of his own. Ravel Morrison was always going to be a gamble, and I think his Boro legacy is probably being that answer that you miss on a Sporcle quiz in 5 years time.

The two other incomings were Woodgate’s attempts to boost a front line that had failed to become the free-flowing attacking unit that Woodgate was looking for. Glimpses of Fletcher and Britt Assombalonga being a cohesive partnership was there, but not frequent enough. Marvin Johnson wasn’t pulling up any trees, and Marcus Tavernier was finding consistency difficult. And as for Rudy Gestede, well…. Just mention his name to most Boro fans, and you’d better just hope that no-one within earshot is sensitive to bad language.

So enter a pair of loanees from the abundantly wealthy Manchester City. To say Lukas Nmecha’s time on Teesside was underwhelming would be an understatement, but his subsequent form in Belgium with Anderlecht suggests that he and Boro just weren’t compatible. He won’t be the first, nor the last. But for his City teammate, Patrick Roberts, there is much more to his Boro story.

Middlesbrough fans love a player who will take people on. Well, all football fans do. But as a club who have found ourselves with a recent history of cautious, defensive managers, the days of watching the quick feet of club legends like Juninho and a young Stewart Downing seem very long ago.

There have been a handful in modern times. Gaston Ramirez burned brightly for a brief time, Albert Adomah and Lee Tomlin had it in their locker but were often found wanting, and the 30+ incarnation of Downing still had the passing ability, but the pace of his first spell was gone. Adama Traore, the obvious name here, saw fits and bursts of quality, before a golden 4 month period where the planets aligned for him and Tony Pulis which saw some of the best individual Boro performances of recent times but also alerted the big boys in the Premier League to his talents. Wolves waved their chequebook, and he was gone.

I’m not saying that Patrick Roberts was the heir apparent to Adama, or that he was even comparable. But that first league start he made at home to Derby County was the first time since the Spanish speed merchant departed that a player seemed to make me get out of my seat every time he was on the ball. He looked direct, he looked quick, he looked hungry. It was no surprise that he had a big part to play in one of the goals, getting hacked down in the penalty area, winning a penalty that Paddy McNair dispatched. It looked as though Woodgate had struck gold, and perhaps had the answer to Boro’s seemingly perennial creativity problems.

Unfortunately, we’ll never know if that would be the case. Roberts would only start two more games, before yet another foul in the penalty area, this time from Birmingham’s Gary Gardner, would rule him out for 7 games, with a 45-minute cameo in Woodgate’s final match, the post-hiatus home horror show against Swansea, being the end of any potential fruitful relationship the two could have had.

Enter Neil Warnock, and a manager who many feared would not be suited to Roberts’ talismanic style. He actually started 5 of 8 games in Warnock’s initial short-term spell to save Boro’s Championship status, but the performances were much more subdued. The injury and the lockdown had perhaps dulled Roberts’ sharpness, or maybe he struggled with Warnock’s instructions. Nevertheless, an assist in an away win at Stoke, and vitally, another one and a goal in a man of the match performance at Reading were crucial in the hunt for survival.

Yet that game at the Madejski was one of only 2 starts for Roberts in the final 5 matches of the season, as the signs that Warnock may not favour the young Londoner began to appear.

For those of us who thought that he still had plenty to offer, it was a pleasant surprise that Boro continued to be linked with Roberts though the summer, and many fans rejoiced when, on 12th October 2020, it was announced that he would return to Teesside for the 2020/21 season.

But that excitement was never truly justified. Despite starting two of the first four matches, he would only appear in the starting XI once more before Christmas, in a 3-0 win at home to Derby when, in truth, the team’s best moments came after he had gone off. Players like Marvin Johnson, Djed Spence, Duncan Watmore and, most notably, Marcus Tavernier were showing far more consistent examples of attacking play, while still maintaining defensive responsibility. Roberts’ role became that of an impact sub, but he failed to have that much of an impact.

Two more starts and one sub appearance in January were all that remained of his time on Teesside, before Warnock’s transfer window shopping spree left him surplus to requirements, and he was returned to Manchester City, who duly loaned him straight back out again, with Derby his next destination.

So his Boro spell was at an end. It promised a lot, but in honesty never quite managed to deliver. A section of fans cried out for Roberts when the team looked stumped breaking teams down, and yet that goal away at Reading in July was his last direct involvement in a goal for Middlesbrough.

An argument could be made that he was never given the consistent run in the team he needed, but I imagine Neil Warnock would argue that he wasn’t up to the job he requires of his wingers. For my part, I certainly would have liked to have seen him used more often, simply because he had something unique in his game that no-one else in the squad at that time had. But when I look at the chances he did have, it would be difficult to argue that he grasped them in any meaningful way. It’s hard to argue that, on balance, Warnock has called this one right.

The story probably has a happy ending for all concerned. Roberts got a move to a team who will most likely utilise him more, and Warnock and the Boro fans got their wingers, but, crucially, ones that the manager knows and trusts.

So the split will be an amicable one. But there is a hint of “What if…?” about the Middlesbrough career of Patrick Roberts. An injury at an inconvenient time, the pandemic and a change of manager all conspired to deprive us of what looked like it could have been a promising union. Could he have saved Woodgate? Probably not, but we’ll never know. What I do know is that there’s a player there with something in his locker, and I really hope he doesn’t manage to find it against Boro.

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