So Far, So Good - And Long May It Continue
Updated: Jan 23
A rosier outlook, a team we can enjoy and a manager that doesn’t half make you love football. It feels pretty good supporting Boro right now.
It’s the perfect remedy for the reality we’re all facing at present, and the nightmare season we endured last.
Looking into it, Boro are already 12 points better off than they were at this stage back then, having scored eight more goals and conceded 12 less.
Alas, after 24 games last season Boro were sitting far too uncomfortably in the lower reaches of the Championship table - 19th in fact - with six wins, nine draws and nine defeats.
Jonathan Woodgate’s side were just about keeping their heads above the water, but the tide would soon sweep them into a genuine relegation battle.
Since then, Boro’s fortunes have turned around completely. A team once within touching distance of the bottom three are now within touching distance of the top six.
I could probably delve into the stats to draw numerical comparisons, but this team just look better. They look more unified, more refined, more determined and more clued up on what they set out to do match to match.
It was very much a ‘roll the dice and see what you get’ under Woodgate. There were no stand-out traits of his philosophy - he wanted to breed a fast-flowing, attacking style of football but once he quickly realised he didn’t have the players to play it, Boro’s style was more... styleless.
Like a Gok Wan makeover, Neil Warnock has made Boro more street smart.
You always know what you’re going to get with him: a man marking policy, emphasis on wide play, fighters, winners and the occasional shithousery. It’s an identity - one we have lacked for a while.
As much as I’d love to talk about how Warnock is some sort of heaven-sent football therapist, the players deserve credit too. They’ve adapted to a new manager, grown in confidence and improved their game tenfold as a result.
Who would have thought Marc Bola would be our first choice left-back this season? I don’t even think that cropped up in his dreams, let alone ours.
Paddy McNair has been reborn at centre-half alongside Dael Fry who, after years of disruption and team selection okey-cokey, looks settled and at home in defence.
Anfernee Dijksteel has continued his late season growth to become one of the most consistent performers in the division.
Jonny Howson is flourishing in his favoured midfield role and then some, aside George Saville, who has made himself almost indispensable in a position that he’s made his own.
Marvin Johnson and Marcus Tavernier have become key players to the Warnock way, particularly Tav, who is probably Boro’s heartbeat at present.
Even the heavily criticised Britt Assombalonga has altered his game to suit Warnock’s team philosophy. He was excellent on Wednesday night.
In fact, the win over Forest epitomised everything about a Neil Warnock side. It was one of the Boro’s best performances of the season, but it’s not the only one.
Defeating Bristol City at Ashton Gate checked off a complete away day display. A win in the reverse fixture against Forest showed patience stitched into a winning mentality, same too with the Coventry victory on home soil. Beating high flying Swansea (in which the scoreline rather flattered them), was also very impressive.
Even in some games where we haven’t won - Watford, Bournemouth and Norwich in particular - we haven’t found ourselves a million miles away from three points.
Yes, there have been a few hiccups, none more so than Birmingham last weekend, but I saw a tweet after that game that put it rather well, ‘it’s an exception, not the rule’.
Warnock has engraved a winning formula at Middlesbrough, and you can tell exactly why he’s the top dog when it comes to promotions.
There are still improvements to be made, of course, and this month is a big one as far as a play-off push is concerned.
Bring in a decent addition or two and that could well elevate Boro into genuine contenders.
Whatever happens though, play-offs or no play-offs, take nothing away from how enjoyable it has been to watch Boro so far this season.
Long may it continue.