I don’t know about you, but I love to welcome former youth team graduates back to Old Trafford. In this Q&A with Middlesbrough fan, Peter Swallow, you will learn how the former Manchester United centre-back has made a career for himself elsewhere, in a side that could challenge for promotion to the Premier League this season.
Nobody ever saw McNair as being good enough for United long-term (Louis van Gaal maybe?), but it’s refreshing to hear he is valued in a decent Boro side and known for his consistency.
Enjoy Peter’s responses to my questions on all things Boro below, and make sure to follow him on Twitter here.
Peter: “It’s best to look at Boro’s season as two distinct periods. Having moved big name players and more importantly, big wages off of the books during the summer, Boro appointed Keiran Scott as Head of Football and he helped oversee a mass of new arrivals. What became clear is that the club were looking to move in a smarter, more streamlined direction, signing players to play in a defined style moving forward.
“This of course, raised eyebrows with Neil Warnock in charge, who despite guiding Boro out of relegation trouble the season prior, was seen as a short term and increasingly archaic managerial choice. A string of poor results and capitulations led the club to dismiss Warnock in November, and appoint a manager who more closely reflected Boro’s long term vision moving forward. Since Chris Wilder’s arrival, Boro have gone from strength to strength, and are one of the form sides in the division. As such, expectation has shifted from a side that may potentially reach the play-offs, to one that may even make an unlikely push towards automatic promotion.
“To conclude, this feels like a ‘building block season’ to something better, and while many believe that the real fruits will bear next season, there is a growing feeling on Teesside that Boro may be playing Premier League football next season, something that was unthinkable in November.”
What are your expectations this season?
Peter: “As I said, the expectations have shifted from outside contenders for a play-off place, to the point where anything other than a top 6 finish would represent something of a disappointment. Boro have recruited well in the summer, and January saw the club do early business, and do it well. Tactically, Boro are as good as they’ve been since Championship promotion in 2015/16, and with only 2 defeats in 11 league games, have real belief that they can win any game of football. Personally, I’m expecting Boro to make the playoffs this season and as we know, anything can happen from there.”
Can Boro do one over United in the FA Cup?
Peter: “Absolutely, there’s a feel good factor around Boro that means we’ll go into any game with confidence, especially when backed by 9,443 Teessiders. Boro fans have some fantastic memories at Old Trafford, most recently in a League Cup win on penalties back in 2015. Lest we forget, it was a 4-1 Boro victory at The Riverside that ended Roy Keane’s time at Manchester United in 2005. It will however, be a difficult task, but United have been less than convincing under Rangnick, and the fear factor no longer exists for any side visiting Old Trafford. We’re the form side out of the two, and If we start the game on the front foot, we can make it an uncomfortable night for the home fans.”
What would it mean to you to see Boro go on a cup run?
Peter: “For many clubs, an FA Cup run is often seen as a secondary objective. This is most likely true for Boro too, who financially would certainly prefer promotion over an FA Cup run. However, for the fans, a long cup run represents a chance to dream. Boro only have one major trophy since our foundation in 1876 (a Carling Cup win in 2004) and have visited Wembley a total of 5 times, having lost each time, but cup runs are a chance for the club to play without fear and with little negative consequence. While promotions come and go, a major trophy lasts forever. It’s something that fans of other clubs still talk about regardless of how long ago they lifted the famous trophy. For a small town like ourselves to join that group of sides would be truly special, and keep the fans dreaming that one day we could find ourselves back in Europe, or even better.”
Who has been your best performing players this season?
Peter: “Undoubtedly Isaiah Jones. After Nottingham Forest’s 1-0 FA Cup win over Arsenal, social media was full of plaudits for the performance of right back Djed Spence, who is on loan at Forest from Boro. Many pundits questioned how Djed Spence ‘wasn’t playing for Middlesbrough’ and the reason is Isaiah Jones. A ring wing back signed from non-league Tooting and Mitcham FC in 2019, Jones is blessed with dazzling feet, electric pace, good defensive acumen and he has great consistency with his end product. He’s earned plaudits from opposition fans and players alike and for good reason, having notched 1 goal and 7 assists this season, and is often Boro’s go to for some creative spark. Certainly Boro’s player of the season so far and one to watch on Friday night.”
Tell us a bit about your manager, Chris Wilder, who we recall from his time in the top flight with Sheffield United?
Peter: “Chris Wilder has been nothing short of a revelation at Boro since his arrival in November.
“Tactically, he’s as good as Boro have ever had, and means that Boro will go into most games with the correct tactics and just as importantly, the flexibility to change should it be required. However, it is his role in the sides mentality that is most noticeable. Boro have become something of late goal specialists recently, having scored after 90 minutes in 3 of our last 5 games. It’s this never say die attitude that we haven’t seen at the club since Aitor Karanka’s promotion winning side of 2015/16.
“He’s also been instrumental in re-establishing a bond between the players and the fans, insisting on weekly player press conferences as a way of forming connections and communicating directly with fans, and it’s working. Boro are always backed by some of the most fervent and underrated away support in the country, and the 9,000+ will be in fine voice on Friday night, whatever the result.”
I see former United defender Paddy McNair is playing for Boro these days. Is he doing well?
Peter: “Paddy McNair has been the definition of consistency since his time at Boro, despite being played in both midfield and defence. It’s however, as a centre-back where he has flourished, with former manager Neil Warnock saying McNair is ‘the best I’ve ever managed’. That’s high praise and he has warranted every bit of it. His utility has made him invaluable as Boro struggled with injuries earlier this season, and he is a deceptively good set-piece taker. History is littered with Manchester United prospects who, having failed to make the grade at Old Trafford, have fallen into footballing obscurity, and it’s testament to McNair’s mentality and quality that he has established himself as one of the best ball playing centre-backs, and best players in general, in the Championship. Under Wilder, McNair represents a player who, should Boro gain promotion, will have no issue establishing himself in the top flight.”
Finally, a scoreline prediction.
Peter: “I’m going for 2-1 Boro. If we start strong and get an early goal, we will shatter United’s already somewhat shaky confidence. Andraž Šporar and Arsenal’s on loan youngster Folarin Balogun to score the goals.”