“It was a decent performance, it’s just maybe not got the result that, being a bit biased, it deserved,” was Wilder’s assessment of the 1-1 draw with Millwall. Bias or no bias, it was fair.
Middlesbrough were the better team, starting with a verve Millwall manager Gary Rowett expected. Even before Wilder emerged in a suit to applaud the crowd or the first chant of “Chrissy Wilder’s red and white army” from the Red Faction, there was a buzz about the Riverside.
The game was not a quarter of a minute old when Duncan Watmore raced down the middle, only to shoot weakly at Bartosz Bialkowski. When his byline brilliance and deflected cross served up a header Matt Crooks could not pass up – “He nearly missed!” noted Rowett, another you can rely on for a fair view of a game –the away fans must have feared a long afternoon.
But when an equaliser that was controversial and fortunate “put a bit of a pin in the balloon” to quote Wilder, Boro could not force the issue. Credit is due to Millwall too, but as Wilder said, his team “ran out of steam”. When another good chance fell to Crooks in the 90th minute he steadied himself then produced a shot so wild, you wished he had rushed it. Crooks and Watmore are good attacking players, but not consistent finishers.
This was not the football which thrilled the Premier League a season-and-a-half ago before that too ran out of steam – although factors such Jack O’Connell’s injury and recruitment contributed to Sheffield United’s demise too. This was Wilder-lite. The ganging-up on full-backs as overlapping centre-backs, wing-backs and No 8s peeled wide was not there.
Of course it was not.
For starters, Watmore’s burst, Andraz Sporar stopped by a brilliant Daniel Ballard tackle minutes later and Crooks’s run onto a well-judged pass from Jonny Howson, the one in a 3-1-4-2, showed straight down the middle was the more profitable route before Millwall tightened their back three.
Even had that not been the case, Wilder was not going to be able to flick a switch. He has never won his first league match in charge of a team but Championship courses have many modules.
Tactics surprisingly few have tried to copy take time to learn.
“I’m not saying anything about what’s happened (under his predecessor Neil Warnock) but everyone’s got their own way of playing,” explained Wilder. “There’s a real enthusiasm from these boys to play, and to play in the system we’re going to give them. If they don’t, they won’t be here. It’s really their decision but I get the feeling they want to do well for the football club.”
The majority of the squad had an intensive fortnight from Wilder and Alan Knill at Rockliffe.
“I’m always full-on,” said Wilder, admitting: “We’ve had to taper some sessions.”
Perhaps when those players came out for the second half the tactical bombardment had its effect, mentally as much as physically. There was also the nature of the equaliser.
Watmore was motoring down the inside-right channel as he does. He cleverly got across his man, as he does, but his momentum caused him to go head over feet, as he too often does.
The linesman flagged for a foul but referee Oliver Langford saw what had happened and as boos rang around, Millwall went down the other end. Minutes after taking an elbow to the face from Benik Afobe, Paddy McNair copped another from Mason Bennett. He too went down dramatically and this time Langford was deceived. When Bennett picked out Afobe, Lee Peltier threw himself onto the heavy touch but hit the ball at Sol Bamba and it bounced into the net.
Boro had second-half chances, Marcus Tavernier growing as the rest faded, but not enough to smash the door down.
“We’re third in first-half results and down the bottom (18th) in the second,” Wilder pointed out. “There’s a correlation.”
The internationals who did not have a fortnight’s coaching had super-abridged lessons at the end of the week. Hence McNair played as a very good Warnock-style right-sided third centre-back but although he got forward more in the second half, not a Wilderesque “Bashenbauer”.
“We did half an hour, 45 minutes, on Friday with Sporar and with Paddy, who came back with a little bit of an issue because he missed the (Northern Ireland v) Italy game,” said Wilder. “(James Lea) Siliki (an unused substitute) came back on Friday as well.
“Paddy and Sporar (substituted at half-time after rolling his ankle) were key to it.
“But I knew this would be the case. Work on the training ground is key and we’ll do the work, we’ll do our hours, and if we’re not on the training ground we’ll be in the analysis room to try and make these boys better.”
With Wilder in charge it surely will happen, and Saturday’s evidence suggested there is enough there to pick up decent results before the opportunity to reshape the squad in January. But it will not be instant.
Middlesbrough: Daniels; McNair, Bamba, Peltier; Howson; Jones (Hernandez 71), Tavernier, Crooks, Bola; Sporar (Coburn 46), Watmore (Ikpeazu 87). Unused substitutes: Lumley, Dijksteel, Taylor, Lea Siliki.
Millwall: Bialkowski; Ballard, Hutchinson, Cooper; Leonard, Mitchell, Saville, Malone; Bennett (Ojo 67); J Wallace (Smith 85), Afobe (Kieftenbeld 81).
Unused substitutes: Long, M Wallace, Bradshaw, Evans.