Middlesbrough v Chelsea: Chris Wilder’s focus is on ‘main event’ at Riverside

A FOOTBALL person to the core, Chris Wilder looked around the boardroom at Stamford Bridge last Sunday and did not like what he saw.

It was nothing to do with politics either, with Chelsea’s reputation having been sullied in the eyes of many by their association with oligarch Roman Abramovich, placed on the Government’s sanctioned list following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The London club are now up for sale.

Taking the chance to take a look at today’s opponents against Newcastle, the Middlesbrough manager spotted plenty of ‘suits’ behind the scenes, but few traditional Chelsea people with the club’s best interests at heart.

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To someone who knows his football history, Wilder found that pretty disappointing.

Chris Wilder, manager of Middlesbrough. Picture: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

Given all that, Chelsea’s spectacular own goal and embarrassing U-turn after brazenly asking for today’s tie to be played behind closed doors on the spurious grounds of ‘sporting integrity’ due to their fans being unable to buy tickets was perhaps not the surprise it seemed to Wilder.

It was a request that any hierarchy with any semblance of football savvy would never ever dream of making and it elicited a stinging response from one of the most experienced and widely-respected owners in the game in Boro chairman Steve Gibson.

Gibson branded Chelsea as ‘pathetic’, with his criticism of Blues chairman Bruce Buck being particularly withering.

For Wilder, Chelsea’s actions were totally unnecessary, with the furore being self-inflicted.

Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel. Picture Adam Davy/PA Wire.

He said: “Maybe if Thomas (Tuchel), a football person, had made that initial decision, we wouldn’t have gone through all the nonsense we went through.

“I thought our club handled it magnificently well, in terms of the statement that came out. Steve, in his honest, blunt forthright manner, said it how it was and hit the nail on the head, as did 99.9 per cent of football people.

“I just thought it was a bizarre request. I think everybody in football did. You saw the backlash.

“I’m not being disrespectful to Chelsea, but I went in the boardroom last Sunday and there were no football people there. Where’s the link and the experience in there?

“I’m sure if a John Hollins or a Pat Nevin was in there, involved in the decision making, it wouldn’t have ever got to that situation. But in the boardroom on Sunday, I’m not seeing any football people. All I’m seeing is agents and people with no football experience.

“If they (FA) had made what would have been a remarkable decision not to let our supporters in, I don’t know where the game goes from there. Thankfully, a sensible decision was made, and we can talk about and look forward to the main event, which is a quarter-final against the world and European champions with an opportunity of getting to Wembley and the semi-finals of an iconic football tournament.”

Given events, Boro probably will have not just Teesside but the country – minus those who follow the Blues – on their side today.

It is not just due to the fact most neutrals have decreed Chelsea to be ‘public enemy number one’ over the past few weeks either, with Boro already afforded plenty of goodwill after wins over Spurs and Manchester United.

Should Chelsea follow the same way, then Yorkshire will have another stellar FA Cup story on their hands like Barnsley in 2008 and Sheffield United and Hull City in 2014.

It remains a big if. Wilder’s experiences with top-level coaches such as Thomas Tuchel has taught him that they leave no stone unturned in preparation.

Wilder, appointed in November, added: “The old-fashioned idea of what a cup upset looks like has pretty much gone out of the window. If you look at the conditioning of the players, they are all like middleweights now.

“If you go back 30 or 40 years, you’d be going into this looking to outfight and outmuscle Chelsea and saying, ‘Have about five free hits on them in the first five minutes or so, then the referee might come over and have a word’.

“That’s all gone out of the window now. We have got VAR on Saturday, which is another factor.”

Boro beat Spurs in the last round not just through industry and heart but smartness. It was lapped up by a Riverside sell-out.

Teesside will be afforded another place in the sun today. Such marquee games have come sooner than Wilder envisaged. Once you get the taste, you want more.

He said: “That was my biggest challenge – getting the buzz back. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really feel it straight away when I came in. That had to change and it did.

“You win games and play well, then the Old Trafford game was a bonus (and you think) ‘Let’s have a look at what Middlesbrough fans are going to do?’

“Well, they sold 10,000 tickets in 24 hours. That showed the enthusiasm and appetite the supporters have for the football club.”