Fair to compare? Unnecessary but understandable, Dael Fry's Boro journey draws the inevitable
If you believe the reports in the press this week, then you’ll be aware that Dael Fry is apparently a wanted man.
Now of course, such talk is likely newspaper’s looking for column inches to fill given the Transfer Window is just a little over a month away, but the fact he’s thought of for such matters proves he’s making an impact on the field.
In recent weeks he’s shown he’s versatile enough to switch to right back in Ryan Shotton’s absence, and despite initially looking out of place, he’s actually grown into the role. His contributions against Stoke and Wigan were almost like that of a seasoned pro, getting forward as he likes to, yet this time he’s expected to add something else to his game – width and an attacking presence.
As he’s shown from his time in the middle of the defence, he’s able to glide out with relative ease, and down the right that ability has seen him ghost past his opponents. His crossing at times hasn’t been too shabby either.
You sense though, that when it comes to outside interest, teams aren’t looking at him to perhaps fill in at full back, they’ll be looking for the next big thing at centre half. Tony Pulis concurs, saying before the international break;
“You watch him train, and he can play anywhere. He’s a top, top player, and playing right-back won’t do him any harm at the moment. I don’t see him as a right-back, but four or five of his crosses were absolute top drawer (against Wigan), and then when he’s called upon to defend, he does the job.”
High praise indeed.
And if reports are to be believed, then there’s little appetite on the Club’s part to do any business when it comes to Fry.
Fair to compare?
At just 21 years of age he’s got some education to go yet before he becomes the sort of player worth the millions Ben Gibson went for in the summer. It’s often been said of late that Fry is better than what Gibson was at this age, and whilst it’s certainly a matter for debate, there’s no denying that he’s got what it takes to emulate his fellow Teessider.
Comparisons, however much unnecessary at times (I’m sure players get tired of them), are inevitable and understandable given the stories of both. And, whilst I’m loathed to try and convince anyone one way or another who’s the better etc, there are arguments there to support those who claim Fry’s career trajectory is on a more upward curve than that of his former teammate.
Having made his debut at the tender of 17 (just a few weeks shy of his 18th) away at Preston on the opening day of 2015/16 season, he went to make a further six league appearances that season, completing the full 90 minutes on each occasion.
Ironically that debut came as a result of a hamstring injury to Ben Gibson.
He would’ve arguably played more had it not been for Gibson and Dani Ayala proving to be one of the meanest defensive pairings the Championship had seen.
To look at Gibson’s Boro career in its formative years it actually took him over two years from his league debut, at home against Coventry in the latter stages of the 2010/11 season, to reach Fry’s debut figure of 630 minutes of league action (against Bolton 30/11/13).
Granted, Gibson had various loan spells in between those dates, taking in valuable experience at Plymouth, York and Tranmere (twice), but it’s the lack of loan activity for Fry that intrigues me.
Lack of loan time a show of faith
Following that breakthrough at the beginning of the promotion season in 15/16, Fry was sent out on loan to Rotherham as Boro strengthened at the back in preparation for a return the big time. Loan arrivals of Calum Chambers, as well as permanent signings Bernardo Espinosa and Antonio Barragan (initially looking promising at centre back too) saw Fry’s path well and truly blocked.
Not that he would’ve been expecting to feature much anyway. Still at a tender age he’d have been more than happy to seek opportunities elsewhere, continuing his footballing education at senior level in the Championship with The Millers.
Whilst the loan was cut short, he still managed to make 10 league appearances, seeing each game out from start to finish. Only the sacking of then manager Alan Stubbs and his subsequent drop to the bench prevented him from get more minutes under his belt. At this point, Boro recalled him, no doubt feeling his time in the u23’s would be better for him than potentially stagnating as back up at a struggling Championship side.
The fact he wasn’t loaned out again could’ve been down to a number of factors, not least a lack of interest perhaps, but that would appear unlikely given his performances. Plus, his showings for the England youth teams (previously winning the U17 European Championships) displayed his obvious potential.
As Boro slid hopelessly to relegation that season, Fry went on to win major honours with England once more, adding the U20 World Cup to his increasingly impressive CV. Still, at this stage, a loan move for a player just about to turn 20 wouldn’t have been deemed a strange move, yet one didn’t come.
New manager Garry Monk, handed a war chest to help Boro “smash the Championship” decided to stick with Fry in his squad, despite the money available to bring in potential replacements. And although last season he ultimately played a bit part, for a fair few weeks he was preferred over Ayala until a mistake cost him his place.
Giving the ball away in an innocuous position against Norwich eventually led to a goal, smashed home by James Maddison from distance. Whilst it was a poor error of judgement, the fact there was still much to do for The Canaries to score meant Fry’s error was punished rather harshly by Monk.
Dropped for the following week, he didn’t see action again in the league for eight games, and only then his return was fleeting before being left in the wilderness once more.
But for the sacking of Monk it’s conceivable that Fry might’ve been sent out on loan, by this point enough had been witnessed to suggest he was a player well worth his time on the pitch. However, Tony Pulis arrived and nothing of the sort arose, yet he still found game time hard to come by as Pulis looked to shore up an uncharacteristically shaky defence.
The familiar axis of Gibson and Ayala played out the season, and Fry only managed 25 minutes of FA Cup action against Brighton, before being called upon in the biggest of games – the second leg of the play-off semi-final against Aston Villa.
With Ayala injured Pulis turned to Fry to plug the gap, signalling his belief in Fry with some positive comments pre-match. Despite Boro failing to progress, Pulis was especially complimentary of Fry’s performance labelling the man from Middlesbrough as “fabulous”.
It’s that faith that Pulis had in him, even though he’d barely featured for months, being able to have the confidence to throw Fry in to such a pressure cooker of an atmosphere shows just highly rated he is by those at the Club.
In fact, the biggest compliment you could possibly pay Fry was that it was barely even a talking point that he came in; such is the regard he’s held in by the Club and fans alike. He came in, replacing a quality Championship defender in Ayala and put in a flawless display. There was an air of confidence amongst fans that anything other would be unlikely, certain that he’d slot in and be more than capable.
And so it proved.
This season he’s continued to impress, whether it’s been part of a three at the back, a traditional two or indeed, as more recently, at full back.
At present he’s managed 11 league outings, and whilst Shotton is absent he’s sure to add to that tally, but there’s arguments that he ought to be a first choice option in his more natural position.
Given how he looks in the side when he does play, it’s hard to disagree.
With a maturity that belies his age, he has a calmness and unflappable demeanour about him, something that could be perceived as arrogance in someone so young, but not in Fry’s case, no. That comes with his ability, knowing that he’s better than some of his teammates and plenty of other more experienced players in his position in the league.
It was perhaps a brave observation to make, but recently as I guested on the Boro Breakdown podcast I likened Fry’s ability to bring the ball out from the back with ease to that of Rio Ferdinand in his pomp.
Whilst I wasn’t saying he’s already as good as Ferdinand, he’s definitely got the potential to be just as good, if not better if he continues on this path.
His assuredness, his confidence in his own ability when he breaks out from the defence, gliding forward and getting the ball up the pitch, but not only that, the awareness he has to pick out a teammate, or at least draw a foul in a positive position. These things make him a vital cog in a Pulis machine.
As we all know, the former Stoke boss likes his defenders to do more than just defend, and Fry fits the bill on that score, only in a more aesthetically pleasing manner than most Pulis centre backs. As he coasts past his opponents, leaving one penalty area, he looks as if he could make as far as the other, marauding forward in a controlled but effective manner. Yet he has the maturity to realise that he’s got responsibilities.
His recent stint at full back will have done his career chances no harm. Surely having an eye on Gareth Southgate’s senior squad in the coming seasons, he’ll be aware the former Boro boss, someone he no doubt draws inspiration from, has a policy for bringing in youth. Fry’s performances at international level for the U21’s level won’t have gone unnoticed, and his versatility for Boro won’t have either.
The comparisons to Gibson will likely continue for the foreseeable, and though it’s perhaps loading pressure on to young shoulders, Fry has shown he’s able to cope.
Still only 21, he’s arguably made more of an impact than Gibson had at a similar age.
The fact he’s not been loaned out more, signalling the faith each manager he’s played under has had in him.
How he’s managed to compete, and often be selected ahead, of his more experienced teammates is especially impressive when you look at who they’ve been up to now.
Taking nothing away from Gibson, but his path to the first team was a little more straightforward, coming in to compete with the injury prone Jonathon Woodgate and Rhys Williams.
Of course, he went on to form one of the greatest defensive partnerships the Club has ever seen with Ayala, his performances week in week out, especially in that promotion campaign proving just how good he is. It’s those kinds of displays that earned him his move this summer, one he could’ve easily made a season earlier but for his commendable loyalty to his hometown team.
Fry no doubt looks up to his former teammate, inspired by him you’d think, but on current evidence you wouldn’t bet against him surpassing his achievements in the game when they’re both looking back at their careers in years to come.