It is untrue to say Tony Mowbray and Chris Wilder, pioneer of the overlapping centre-back, are relics of that bygone age. Neither would be successful managers were they stuck in a footballing timewarp. Mowbray’s Blackburn Rovers are missing their top scorer Ben Brereton Diaz tonight because he is on international duty with Chile, whilst Wilder’s Middlesbrough signing Riley McGree is with Australia.
But Saltburn’s Mowbray and Sheffield’s Wilder were built on refreshingly old-fashioned virtues – straight-talking, no-nonsense grafters. Both were defenders, not fancy-dan forwards, but neither see football as a grim exercise in survival. Back when the game was a working-class sport millworkers and steelworkers could afford to watch from the terraces every other Saturday at 3pm, it was their release. Entertaining matters to them.
The result is two faded northern towns, one built on textiles, the other iron, fighting to be part of football’s 21st Century European elite. Blackburn versus Middlesbrough is live on Sky Sports tonight because Mowbray and Wilder have created Premier League promotion contenders.
Despite similar mentalities, the Middlesbrough legend and the man who has only just started working on being one are not mates or drinking buddies.
“I’m not really close to Tony, I just know him seeing him twice a year home and away for a couple of years and the odd LMA (League Manager’s Association) do, but I think I know a genuine guy when I see one,” says Wilder of the man who captained and managed Boro but will be looking to put one over on them this evening.
“Tony is a proper football guy – from a career point of view, from a coaching point of view and most importantly from a character point of view.
“There’s quite a lot of bluffers in the game, quite a lot of spin merchants, quite a lot of people that give out this image, but Tony says it as it is.
“He’s been at Blackburn Rovers a few years and had an opportunity of moulding his team and in that you have different challenges. I’m a huge Tony Mowbray fan and not surprised his team is going well this season.”
If Blackburn were the success story of late 2021, winning seven and drawing one of their final eight Championship games of the year, Middlesbrough are picking up the baton. Win at Ewood Park and that will be their record.
Wilder will be ensuring his players do not delude themselves into thinking tonight will be easy just because his team seems to be on such unstoppable form epitomised by late wins and Blackpool and Reading. Actually, two months at the helm is probably long enough that those messages can go unspoken.
Likewise, Mowbray will not be wetting the bed at the thought of his team’s promotion push collapsing just because they lost 2-0 at Hull City last Wednesday.
“Complacency and arrogance really hurt you in this game,” warns Wilder, before turning to Blackburn’s mindset.
“They’ll see this as an opportunity of bouncing back and Tony will understand as I do that one win doesn’t derail a season.
“If I had a 20-goal striker in our ranks (as Blackburn do in Brereton Diaz) and we lost him, I would say that’s going to hurt us but it’s how you deal with that. I would say everyone’s thinking we’re a one-man team, we need to show we’re not and work a bit harder.
“Since the Fulham game they’ve been on an outstanding run and it’s about how you react and I’m sure they’ll come flying out of the traps.”
Equally, Wilder is not looking to spoil the fun of those enjoying the momentum at the Riverside.
“You’ve got to go with it,” he argues. “You’d rather have it than not have it. I’ve been in situations where it’s the other way around. It’s not going to last forever.
“No doubt there will be part of the game when we’re under the cosh and parts where we’re on the front foot.”
One of the themes of Wilder’s press conference is the togetherness he has built in his squad.
“I tried to do it when I was 22 with my pal’s Sunday League team,” he shrugs. “Whatever level you play at, you have to have that togetherness. You have to rely on each other, trust each other.
“I don’t see any team that’s done anything individually. If it’s good enough for the likes of Man City, it’s good enough for us.”
Swap the South Yorkshire accent for a Teesside one, and it could just as easily have been Mowbray. These are like-minded managers and managers football people are minded to like.