Middlesbrough prepare for summer of change as Chris Wilder hopes to repay fans’ faith

JUST under seven years ago, then Middlesbrough captain Grant Leadbitter stood on his own at Wembley, clearly hurting, and deliberately made himself watch opponents Norwich City lift the Championship play-off winners’ trophy.

It became an iconic image. For Leadbitter, an individual who is almost unique in being loved on Teesside every bit as much as he is on Wearside, it provided the motivational fuel for Boro’s successful promotion crusade the season after in 2015-16.

Which brings us to Chris Wilder. Pained like Leadbitter was before him, he stood apart from his players and coaching staff just after the final whistle on Saturday to clap 5,600 Boro fans, who provided a wall of red noise from start to finish in the Bill Shankly Stand at Deepdale.

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It was magnificent backing, which deserved better. When Preston’s fourth goal went in, the support got even louder.

Middlesbrough's Jonny Howson (left) has been offered a new deal by the club. Picture: Bradley Collyer/PA

Wilder revealed after the game that Boro coach Leo Percovich said a few touching words that chimed with him in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s match when he was suffering, just as Leadbitter was on that late spring day at 2015.

Percovich told him that the fans trusted him. Their marvellous support in a game when Boro were bettered by an outstanding Preston side underlined that.

Saturday was the end of one chapter as Boro’s play-off hopes were extinguished. This week will hopefully be the start of another more successful one.

Since his arrival, Wilder’s Boro have provided moments to savour, against Manchester United and Spurs in the Cup and the likes of Nottingham Forest and Bournemouth in the league.

Middlesbrough manager, Chris Wilder Picture: Will Matthews/PA

But they have also been inconsistent, particularly away from the Riverside and to really push on, there will need to be a fair bit of change.

A bit more about that will be revealed possibly later today when the club’s retained list is due to be announced.

Wilder, who confirmed that Jonny Howson – Boro’s only ‘leader’ at Preston – is to be offered a new deal, said: “There has already been a lot of work gone in, and you will see that.

“On Monday, it will be face-to-face meetings with the players, no emails or phone calls. It will be man-to-man, face-to-face, thanks very much.

MAGIC MOMENT: Middlesbrough players celebrate winning the penalty shoot-out in the FA Cup fourth round match against Manchester United at Old Trafford Picture: Martin Rickett/PA

“There will be some stern conversations with boys that do stay that we need to get more out of as well. There are certainly some that have got talent, but in a way are under-performing.

“The likes of (Paddy) McNair and (Isaiah) Jones, who on the face of it have had good seasons, there is loads more to come from them. There is loads more to come from Dael Fry.

“There are players like Riley McGree, who has shown his ability in glimpses, but I need to get more out of him. Tav (Marcus Tavernier) has had a decent seaso, but I need to get more.

“But there are boys who aren’t on the (next) journey and that’s part and parcel of this ruthless game that we’re in. Sentiment and loyalty goes out the window because the job is to bring back success to this football club.”

One side played like a team in with a chance of reaching the play-offs on Saturday and it was not Boro.

High-energy, aggressive, smart and strong, the hosts were dominant in all areas. Their front two of Emile Riis, who scored a hat-trick and Jordan Archer bullied Boro’s backline and, despite the efforts of Howson, Alan Browne and Ben Whiteman governed midfield. Preston were also sound defensively.

The opener that had been coming arrived when Browne swept the ball home before Riis wriggled away and saw his low shot deflect in off Fry to make it 2-0 at the break.

A header early in the second half from Tavernier reduced the arrears, only for Riis to soon deliciously dink in his second and Preston’s third. He later claimed the match-ball, firing home a penalty after McNair was dismissed for handball.

At the other end, Boro’s attack was blunt. Throughout this season, their lack of firepower has been an Achilles heel.

With the loan spells of Andraz Sporar, Flo Balogun and Aaron Connolly – who have all had negligible impact in the final analysis – having all ended, Boro will now need three new strikers. It’s Wilder’s biggest issue to sort in the summer. Trust him to do that.

Preston North End: Iversen; van den Berg, Diaby (Huntington 80), Lindsay; Whiteman (Ledson 86); Potts, McCann, Browne, Johnson; Riis (O’Neill 82), Archer. Unused substitutes: Ripley, Cunningham, Evans, Maguire.

Middlesbrough: Daniels; Dijksteel (Connolly 66), Fry, McNair; Jones, Crooks, Howson, McGree, Tavernier; Watmore (Balogun 62), Sporar (Coburn 62). Unused substitutes: Lumley, Peltier, Bamba, Bola.

Referee: T Robinson (West Sussex).