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14 minutes ago, TeaCider24 said:

Millwall's next two fixtures against Bournemouth and Watford have been postponed due to Covid.

Has there been any mention of our fixture with Rotherham being on or off yet?

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5 minutes ago, Blanco said:

Has there been any mention of our fixture with Rotherham being on or off yet?

Still nothing, sadly.

Their local paper say they're expecting the news today, so I'll keep checking their club site.

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1 minute ago, TeaCider24 said:

Still nothing, sadly.

Surely something will come out in the next day or so.

Yes I would have thought so. It’s strange that Millwall have their next two games off and not a word from Rotherham who were called off at the weekend for the same thing ie Covid 

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Their is a fascinating article about the Boro in today’s Athletic...

Nine championship games in 29 days. 

Following a team in their maddest run ever. 

 

Neil Warnock was on the pitch. It was all over. Approaching 5pm on Saturday and Middlesbrough had just won 4-1 at Birmingham City to lift the Teessiders into the Championship’s play-off places. The dark, empty stadium echoed to a brief cheer from the away dugout, then Warnock exchanged coronavirus fist-bumps with Birmingham’s staff and the match officials. His players were heading for the touchline. Warnock called them back. For a minute or so, they formed a red circle near the centre spot.

Half an hour later, Warnock stands in a cold St Andrew’s corridor with a warm smile on his face and tells The Athletic: “I just wanted to thank them.”

It was sincere gratitude, not just for victory but for another front-foot performance at the end of a sequence of matches that merit the re-use of unprecedented.

“It’s the hardest period I’ve ever had in my career,” Warnock says, “by a mile. I’m 72 now, but I bet a lot of young managers are shattered.”

Because this was not simply the end of another tough Championship 90 minutes. Warnock was referring to a series of nine Championship matches in 29 days. Saturday-Wednesday, Saturday-Wednesday on repeat.

The first 11 games of the Championship season had been spread across 58 days; Middlesbrough were then asked to play their next nine in precisely half that time. Just shy of 20 per cent of the league season had been condensed into less than a month.

“I’m in my 41st season as a manager and I’ve never come across anything like this,” Warnock says. “We’re going into unknown territory, even someone of my experience. I honestly don’t know what’ll happen.”

Birmingham away was the ninth game and The Athletic has been alongside Middlesbrough throughout.

Britt Assombalonga celebrates Boro’s first goal at Birmingham City (Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

There were five wins and four defeats, 15 goals (of a total of 25), 32 substitutions, just 12 yellow cards and one red (later overturned), and 18 different players used. Two have succumbed to injuries due to sheer attrition, but goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli, and defenders Dael Fry, Paddy McNair and Marc Bola have each played all 810 minutes, plus stoppages, which added up to another 50 minutes across the nine games. There have been 18 pre- and post-match press conferences, during which Warnock has referenced Frank Sinatra, Red Adair, Franz Beckenbauer and delivered umpteen warnings about COVID-19. There has been one apparently decisive speech at the club’s Rockliffe training ground.

On the morning of the first game — at home to Norwich City on November 21 — Middlesbrough were seventh in the table, three points off automatic promotion, an achievement in itself given the club were staring at relegation when Warnock succeeded Jonathan Woodgate with eight games of last season to go. By Saturday night, they were sixth, five points off the top two with two of their next three games against the current bottom two, Sheffield Wednesday and Wycombe Wanderers.

But those can wait. The Championship is in the middle of a week off. Middlesbrough were intending to have no training Sunday or Monday and Warnock said he was planning to spend Christmas Day “in me jammies”.

He had mentioned Christmas back on November 19, when we had first discussed the nine-game schedule. This man known for his eight promotions has been managing since the summer of 1980, when he took over at non-League Gainsborough Trinity and bought all the players blue v-neck jumpers so that they might look smart and play smart. In this run, Warnock came up against managers such as Huddersfield’s Carlos Corberan and Alex Neil of Preston North End, who were not born back then.

“First,” Warnock says, when asked in general how he will approach the intense month, “we have got to enjoy coming into training. Whatever the latest result is, we’ve got to forget about the game as soon as possible. No time for dwelling on mistakes or disappointments.

“I’m pretty good psychology-wise, and I trust the lads. Most managers, when you’ve got a schedule like this, will have the players in the day after a game for a warm-down et cetera. I have never believed in that. I trust my lads to go for a walk, take the dogs out, do something to get rid of the lactic acid. Rather than driving in an hour, driving home an hour. Mentally, that tires them. I’d rather they stopped at home and were mentally fresh.

“I feel that trust is repaid. They’d rather have a day off than drive in, warm up, jog, shower and then have another drive home — you know what I mean? Christmas Day, I never have players in. All I say to them on Christmas Eve is to make sure they don’t have too much pud.”

And he has moved on from v-necks. “Also, we’ve got to make sure we cover the players in terms of technology, have them wired up during games. We don’t have a massive sports science staff, but they’re very good. I’ve been very impressed.”

This seems more specifically related to the physical task ahead.

Warnock knows his reputation is that of an old-school, long-ball manager from the 20th century. But he would not be managing as 2020 turns into 2021 if that was all he was. He was a qualified chiropodist at Gainsborough, speaks insightfully of concussion subs and while he would not use the term holistic, Warnock understands the broad picture.

“You tell me what year (Arsene) Wenger took over at Arsenal?” he asks. “1996? I’d have been at Plymouth Argyle, then I was at Bury for a few months after Oldham before I went to Sheffield United. It was at Sheffield United that I started to adapt. We went into all the data, fitness, nutrition — psychology with the doctor. You name it, we did it. And that was all down to Wenger. He was a massive influence on the country, on me, on the whole football world. I think he changed everything.

“We did ever so well at Sheffield United. I thought in terms of preparation we were very good and that gave us the stability we had. I’ve carried that on, and even more so as technology steps up. When we do our Friday morning tactical things on the opponent here, it always amazes me to see these players zooming around the boards — we used to have Subbuteo. Computer lads can do anything.

“But, I still think, no matter what you have with statistics, the human eye can tell you most things — if you’ve got experience.”

He looked forward, some anxiety lacing his natural excitement. “It’s a nightmare for managers, this. It’s a nightmare for clubs. Having said that, it’s a nightmare for the country. It’s going to take an enormous effort in the next nine games. I don’t think a lot of people will realise what is going to hit ‘em.

“We’ve got four Wednesday games, so we’ll either have Thursday off and Friday preparing — or travelling if it’s an away game. Recovery is going to be so important. We had a tough session on Tuesday (November 17) and that’ll be the last tough session until next year, probably February. No training anymore. All it is now is recovery for a day, preparation for a game and off you go again.”

 

Game 1: Saturday, November 21

Middlesbrough 0-1 Norwich

The morning before Norwich arrive at the Riverside, Warnock gives his pre-match press conference via Zoom. Local television, local radio, the Northern Echo and Middlesbrough Gazette are the questioners and Warnock’s mood is bright. “The Gazette keeps running out in my Spar shop!” he says.

He reveals an approach from I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! a couple of years ago, has a pop at Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough for playing McNair in all three internationals over the break that ended in midweek, including a European Championship play-off that went to extra time — “selfish and immature” — and recalls that in 1998 he was “in the last two” for the Norwich City job. “Bruce Rioch got it.”

Warnock then remarks on the amending of EFL Regulation 33.4 on substitutes — “nine subs, or whatever it is” — and points out that Middlesbrough had only six on the bench, not the permitted seven, for their previous game at Brentford.

McNair is picked at centre-half and plays the 90 plus six minutes of added time. He is not too extended initially as Middlesbrough’s midfield energetically closes down Norwich. Their physical energy is striking; they are on top of a team who started the day third, a point off the leaders Reading.

A sign of the times – disinfectant is sprayed on a ball before Middlesborough’s game against Norwich (Photo: Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images)

In the 51st minute, there is a home penalty, but Marcus Tavernier slips and is judged to have hit the ball twice when beating Tim Krul. Twenty minutes later, Teemu Pukki, left on the bench after international duty for Finland, converts a Norwich penalty. The visitors win 1-0 and go top. Reading fall to sixth, having lost away to Bournemouth.

Geographically, Norwich is remote, like Middlesbrough, Swansea and Bournemouth. But their financial strength after relegation from the Premier League means they flew to Teesside and back. They then flew to and from their game at Stoke three days later. Norwich even flew the 100 miles to Luton away.

“The Premier League is the best league in the world,” says their head coach, Daniel Farke. “The toughest league in the world is definitely the Championship. But… if you always speak about being tired, then you feel tired. It’s important not to mention that too much.”

Both clubs name the newly-permitted nine subs and Norwich use all five allowed, though three are only introduced in stoppage-time. Across the Championship weekend, Barnsley and Luton Town are the only other clubs to use all five. Nottingham Forest and Birmingham use just one each. Reading and Brentford don’t fill their nine-man benches. The average substitute use among the division’s 24 clubs was 3.3 out of five.

“I loved watching us today, the lads are giving everything,” says Warnock.

 

Game 2: Wednesday, November 25

Middlesbrough 3-0 Derby County

A couple of hours before kick-off comes the news of Diego Maradona’s death. The state of the Championship suddenly seems irrelevant. Of course it’s not, particularly for Derby, who are bottom. The club sacked Phillip Cocu 10 days earlier and appointed former Middlesbrough manager Steve McClaren as technical director the day before this trip to Teesside. Unlike Norwich, that trip is taken by bus. The investment from the alleged Saudi takeover is yet to arrive.

In between Warnock reminiscing about Derby’s old Baseball Ground home and nearly becoming their manager on various occasions, the visitors’ focus has switched to Wayne Rooney. He is not even half the age of Warnock, whom he wants to follow as manager or player-manager. Warnock recalls trying the latter role himself early on and being “exhausted” by the twin demands. He thinks Rooney “can do it, short-term”.

Just how short-term reveals itself quickly. Rooney is 35 and has had 19 seasons of full-pelt professional football. It shows. Rooney plays all 90+5 minutes of a game Middlesbrough control. Derby make four substitutions and were Rooney not called Wayne Rooney he would surely have been a fifth. He has not kicked a ball for the club since this game. Rooney has moved to the dugout, only interim manager but full-time.

Warnock made three changes from the Norwich game. McNair and six others again played the full game. Middlesbrough’s tempo was again snappy, though Warnock said of his players: “I had to give them a bit of a bollocking before the game tonight, which is unusual, because they were a bit sloppy in the dressing room, a bit lethargic.”

He gave free-agent forward Duncan Watmore a first start since Boxing Day last year. Watmore’s attacking sense, Warnock says, “allows us not to be rigid.”

Watmore’s father Ian, who worked in Tony Blair’s cabinet office, says Duncan is loving Middlesbrough after seven years with north east neighbours Sunderland: “It’s an environment where you want to go every day, rather than feel you should.”

 

Game 3: Saturday, November 28

Huddersfield Town 3-2 Middlesbrough

A third game in eight days and it looks like a test of stamina. It did not feel like that at 3 o’clock or 3.30pm, though. Even in unrelenting rain, with an atmospheric fog cloaking the stadium at the foothills of the Pennines and darkness falling by kick-off, Middlesbrough were fresh.

Warnock named nine of the starting XI who beat Derby 3-0 and after 14 minutes it should have been 3-0 Middlesbrough again. Britt Assombalonga missed two chances before Marvin Johnson gave them a deserved lead. In a 3-4-3 formation with the front seven camped in Huddersfield’s first 35 yards, Warnock’s zippy players were dominant.

A happy camp was visible on the pitch, a tone set the day before when Warnock was asked about Maradona and immediately recalled seeing Pele play for Santos at Sheffield Wednesday in 1972.

There were also nods to his time in charge of Huddersfield – one of his eight promotions. Warnock was at the club for the last season at their old Leeds Road ground – 1993-94. It was there he once saw Huddersfield striker Andy Booth’s mum, who worked at the ground, run on to confront a player who had fouled her son. Laughing, he recalls this to The Athletic.

“I said to (a Warnock assistant then and today) Ronnie Jepson, ‘Can you remember Boothy going down injured and a woman running across the dugout!’

“‘What’s she doing?’ I said.

“‘Boothy’s mum, gaffer.’”

But amid the smiles, there are jarring moments.

Just before kick-off, Huddersfield’s players drop down to take the knee. Middlesbrough’s remain standing.

It is a disconcerting contrast, perhaps more noticeable away from home. Middlesbrough had stopped taking the knee when QPR did, with captain Assombalonga explaining why: “It has to lead to something, as opposed to just being a trend. It can’t be a case of us just doing it for the sake of doing it. I don’t want to be doing it for the rest of my career. I’ve probably got six or seven years left – I don’t want to be taking a knee every time but then still be waiting for a change.”

Out of nothing, Huddersfield equalise just past the half-hour. Before half-time, they get a second. Assombalonga makes it 2-2 late on but there is still time for Josh Koroma to bend in a home winner. By then, Middlesbrough look tired.

Around an hour later, Warnock stalls at the top of the stairs and to the question about individual fatigue, he replies: “Oh, yeah, every club in the Football League will be seeing it. It’s only going to get worse.”

He made three substitutions. Elsewhere the average rises to 3.6 with all 10 possible changes being made at Cardiff v Luton. Leaders Norwich concede a late equaliser at home to fourth-bottom Coventry City, having been able to name only six of nine permitted subs. Their midfielder Alex Tettey says: “Those who have played all the games until now and are not injured, well done. Fair play to them, because there will come a point when your body will break down.”

 

Game 4: Wednesday, December 2

Middlesbrough 2-1 Swansea City 

The pace shifts up a gear: this is the first of six games in 18 December days. But Warnock is not entertaining a discussion about weary bodies. Despite what he said at Huddersfield three days earlier, he previews Swansea with a different opinion: “Every time we lose, it’s gonna be ‘fatigue’. I don’t think we should make an excuse like that. If we’d been three up, as we should have been, we’d have been sprinting for England. Most of it’s in the mind, I don’t get that fatigue thing.”

Tiring – or retiring – is not something Warnock wishes to contemplate. He turned 72 the day before and as he says: “I read this morning that apparently the first time I said I was going to retire, I was 58. So it’s one of your Frank Sinatras.”

This is his seventh new job in management since then. It came in June — following Middlesbrough’s 3-0 home defeat by… Swansea. That saw them fourth-bottom and the experiment with local lad Woodgate ended. By the following Saturday, Warnock was in charge and the team rose to 17th en route to safety.

Warnock stayed on. Against Swansea this time around, only three of their starters from that meeting in June do so again. He has not been on a recruitment drive, he has reshuffled, brought players back in such as Bola and Anfernee Dijksteel. Middlesbrough win a tight match with two goals from Watmore.

It did not prevent Watmore getting earfuls from Warnock, audible in the empty Tier 3 stadium.

There was a touch of his Cardiff days about Warnock’s attitude towards Middlesbrough’s opponents from south Wales and his reign in the Welsh capital could provide another template. It was there he steered an eighth team to promotion in 2018 with a core of players, nine of them, who started 30 or more Championship games. At Middlesbrough, he has 10 who have started 10 or more of the 15 league games played so far in 2020-21. Three of those – McNair, Dijksteel and Jonny Howson, have just committed to new contracts. There is a gathering sense of unity.

“Our strength is our team spirit and togetherness,” Warnock says. “A lot of people focus on the negatives – I think in the north east the glass is always half-empty, whereas I’m half-full.”

This feels like an important victory and the only person speaking about fatigue afterwards is Swansea manager Steve Cooper. Swansea flew to Teesside and flew back that night, so there was no multi-hour, 300-plus mile bus journey. Still, Cooper said: “If you keep rolling out the same players for every game, bar maybe in an exceptional circumstance, players will break.”

Warnock, meanwhile, was more than half-full. “Paddy?” he says of McNair, “he’s a manager’s dream. There’s so many players here I think, ‘Wow, how lucky am I?’ It wasn’t so long ago that Paddy wasn’t a regular in the team. You’ve just got to see how he’s blossomed and how he’s brought Dael Fry back to life and how those two have brought Marc Bola back to life, and Dijksteel. You go further forward, I’ve never seen (George) Saville play as well, Jonny Howson. It just seems to be a thing that builds up and everybody gets a little bit more confident.”

True to his word, Thursday was a day off. “We all had a holiday. Paddy and a few of the lads went off and had nine holes of golf. I was going to join them, but when I saw it raining I thought, ‘Not for me’. If we lose at Stoke, you can blame the golf on Thursday.”

By the end of the midweek fixtures, four points cover the Championship’s top 10. Middlesbrough are 10th.

The average number of subs used by the division’s clubs in this round is up to 3.8 out of five.

 

Game 5: Saturday, December 5

Stoke City 1-0 Middlesbrough 

No one mentioned golf. Middlesbrough lost another narrow match; by a single goal for the third (and final) time in this nine-game run. Warnock had no complaints about his players’ energy or application. He had made only one change to the XI that beat Swansea on Wednesday. He used all five subs for the first time, though two of the changes were in the 89th minute and were not fatigue or injury substitutions.

What he did complain about were the facilities provided for the away team. “A pigsty”, Warnock called the portakabin in which Middlesbrough were housed pre-game amid COVID-19 restrictions. “In fact, pigs would have seen it and run away. It was an absolute disgrace, that.”

There is a flurry of headlines. And then, as quickly as the game had come, it was gone. Middlesbrough were on the bus north, thinking of Preston on Wednesday night.

The division’s average use of substitutes reaches a high in the run of 4.1 out of five.

Perhaps the strain is telling.

 

Game 6: Wednesday, December 9

Preston 3-0 Middlesbrough 

Six games in and to the untutored eye gazing down on “Deepdale’s hallowed turf” as the tannoy man put it, the pace is slowing. Preston and Middlesbrough play out a close opening hour and just when the visitors up the tempo, their hosts break away and score. There are two more home goals in the last 10 minutes and it feels like Warnock’s men have hit a dip. That’s no goals and back-to-back defeats in the past five days.

The tutored eye of Rob Tatham confirms the impression.

Tatham, 42, is into his fourth season as Middlesbrough’s doctor, having been at Derby previously. He knows the current set of players well.

“You can generally tell from watching the game what you’re going to get metrics-wise,” Tatham tells The Athletic the following afternoon. “If it looks like a team is a little bit flat, then you tend to see that (in the figures).”

Warnock would speak of a subdued dressing room at Deepdale – “heads between the knees” – but Tatham and his medical staff were already focused on recovery and the next game. Rehydration and nutrition begins immediately and continues on a two-hour trans-Pennine bus trip back to Rockliffe. Tatham says these journeys after a loss can be “sombre”, though his department is already thinking of Saturday and Millwall at home. “As staff, we’re fairly busy. We try to chat to the lads as well, look to the next game. But they need time to reflect.”

Each training-ground day begins with a COVID-19 questionnaire to ensure the virus does not enter the Rockliffe bubble.

“We’ve amalgamated that with the other questions we do regularly, like asking them how well they’ve graded recovery, sleep, any particular issues to another part of the body,” Tatham says. “We do it on an app on their phones. There’s a sliding scale they can score from. It was a late night last night, a two-day trip to Preston. We didn’t get back to Rockliffe until midnight. We’ve tried to maximise the sleep they get but whatever sleep you get isn’t going to be ideal. They’ve come in today at lunchtime for recovery, had lunch.”

With every training session and match monitored on the club’s GPS system, Boro’s full-time medical staff of five have other data to study.

“We do jump tests intermittently,” Tatham says. “We do it more as a measure of fitness and conditioning, rather than recovery as such. We have certain players we do a groin squeeze test on, which basically involves them having to squeeze a pressure cuff between their knees with their legs in various positions. The reason is some players, especially when they get fatigued, switch off around the body’s mid-section, around the lower back, lumbar pelvis and down into the groin. If that goes unchecked, they can start to develop groin symptoms. So the squeeze test is quite a sensitive marker for those players, because we know what their base line is. That’s quite a good indicator of recovery for those players.”

But Tatham does not rely solely on data. He uses the word “context” more than once. “It’s always important to use this in context and use your feel as well as the numbers, looking at how they’re moving, how they are around the building, demeanour. You can get a general sense of fatigue when you’re working with them day in, day out. You can get a pretty good idea if someone’s not their normal self.

“It’s the same with any statistic, you have to put it in context. If we are playing tactically a certain way, that can easily change a player’s metrics. If they’re playing in a different position, their metrics might be down, their sprint distance might be down, but that’s because of the position they’re being asked to play. You should never look at the GPS on its own. It’s a tool to back up what you’re thinking or flag up anything you might have missed. So when we produce the spreadsheet we always look at what percentage of their match-maximum they hit on that specific metric. If a player’s hitting high numbers for sprinting, high-speed running or high-intensity acceleration and deceleration, then that is quite fatiguing on the body. You look at that over a cumulative period, not just one game.

“In some ways, probably, the players at most risk are those who aren’t playing. When you have two game days a week and travelling, if you’re not careful their load can be very light and they can de-condition. Inevitably you’ll pick up injuries because of the schedule and those players have to be ready to step straight in. If they have de-conditioned, they’ll be at a high risk of injury themselves.”

Geographically, it is understandable why clubs would fly to Teesside and Middlesbrough would fly the 300 miles to Bournemouth, for example, rather than go by coach. But why would they travel the 120 miles to Preston the day before?

“The problem with travel on the day,” Tatham explains, “is when players have been sitting for a while. It’s neuromuscular. An overnight stay allows you to plan nutrition, mobility sessions, stretching, getting to the game fresh and without being rushed.” He accepts that sleep patterns are disrupted, and the club think about those.

Thursday brings confirmation that key midfielder Howson – an ever-present in the run’s six games to date before coming off just past the hour-mark against Preston – will be out for at least a fortnight. Also, back-up defender Nathan Wood’s girlfriend has tested positive for the virus, so he will have to isolate for two weeks.

Howson’s hamstring is the problem and Tatham says this is the sort of news he’s getting from peers at other Championship clubs. “From what I’ve heard, hamstring injuries are generally high across many clubs. I haven’t got any official data but that’s the general feedback. It’s a reflection of the load and what players have been asked to do after a period of relative downtime with COVID.”

 

Game 7: Saturday, December 12

Middlesbrough 3-0 Millwall

Middlesbrough need a response to those defeats at Stoke and Preston. For the first time, their effervescent manager sounds concerned about fatigue, squad numbers and, without explicitly saying so, morale. He has warned his players again, and the Teesside region generally, about the perils of COVID-19. Warnock has had it already and while grateful it did not go on to his chest “it knocked me back a little bit”.

So this feels like a moment. Dijksteel has missed three games since being injured at Huddersfield, Howson was lost at Preston, Grant Hall had been injured in recovery having not played since September and Ashley Fletcher is still out. These are important players – during a fans’ podcast, Warnock dropped in that Steve Bruce had been impressed with Dijksteel as Middlesbrough beat his Newcastle side in pre-season. Warnock mentions the squad sizes of both Stoke and Preston squads before Millwall’s visit and replies to a question about taking Yannick Bolasie on loan in January from Everton: “Hope so.”

The players were given a lie-in after Preston but, even so, “on Thursday they were so fatigued they could only go in the swimming pool,” Warnock tells The Athletic. “We’ve never come up against this before as managers. So much fatigue, so many games in such a short time. We need to sign two or three. Some of them have been running on empty. Jonny Howson was an accident waiting to happen.”

And yet when they face Millwall, Middlesbrough are 3-0 up in 20 minutes and look on a different level to the visitors athletically.

How did he get such a response? Standing outside the Riverside’s away dressing room on Saturday evening, Warnock’s answer is: “Emotionally.

“We’ve got some energy in the team, it’s a matter of getting that out of them on a regular basis. We saved it ‘til Friday. I just reiterated to them what lucky players they are, what a lucky manager I am to have a club like Middlesbrough, to have a stadium like this. In such a pandemic, when fans are unemployed and there’s all this misery going on, we’ve got to give this place a lift. And the only way to do that is to get on the front foot and get at teams.

“I’d call it a rollicking, you could probably put it another way. They’re all young lads and they feel sorry for themselves. We’d lost two on the trot and all I said to them was, ‘Think where you live. Think where you train. Think how lucky you are. So get a grip of yourselves and let’s get going again’.”

It is an image to consider; this man, born in 1948, galvanising players 50 years younger, many from backgrounds incomparable to the 1950s Sheffield that Warnock grew up in. He calls himself Red Adair, then remembers Adair’s last famous blast of firefighting, at age 75, was in 1991 in the Gulf War and that only two of this squad were born by then. When he compares McNair to Beckenbauer, he realises none of his players saw the German great of the 1960s and 70s play.

But he could see a reaction in their faces when delivering his rollicking: “Yeah, I think so. Because everybody’s listening, there’s nobody looking down at the floor. They all know – and they all care. That’s the main thing. They care. They don’t put on a performance like Preston on purpose. It’s not lack of effort when it’s like that; mentally sometimes, it’s easier to chuck the towel in than to fight back. We’ve just got to keep believing.”

 

Game 8: Wednesday, December 16

Middlesbrough 1-0 Luton 

Another hectic midweek, and in Championship dressing rooms across England and Wales there will have been muscles massaged and tactical tweaks made. In Middlesbrough’s, there was something else. “At half-time, I asked our lads if they’d played Sunday League,” Warnock says. “I said, ‘In the second half, we need to play Sunday League’.”

Defender Marc Bola nodded to himself: “Inside I thought, ‘Yeah, I know what he means’.”

Warnock was probably thinking of amateur adult football, but Bola understood all the same. He played Sunday League football as a boy in south east London, which is where he was spotted by Arsenal. “I played for Long Lane, based in Blackheath,” Bola says. “I was there from age nine to about 11, 12.”

Luton had more than matched Middlesbrough’s intensity in the first half. Warnock was right to be worried. Seven minutes after his Sunday League chat, Chuba Akpom scored the game’s only goal. But then Sam Morsy was dismissed (later successfully appealed), Luton had a penalty disallowed for a double strike, a la Tavernier against Norwich, and the 10-man home side held on during a bombardment that included an added seven minutes.

It was seven minutes at the end of his eighth game in 26 days and Bola’s reaction was: “To be fair, I was a bit shocked! We’re down to 10 men for 20-odd minutes, so it’s not what you want. That was probably the hardest moment (in this run). Mentally, yes. Defending non-stop. But I don’t think you really feel it until after the game. You have adrenaline and there’s that much going on. You don’t think, ‘I’m blowing here’.”

Not that Bola, who turned 23 this month, would complain. “It’s been good!” he says, “I always enjoy playing as many games as I can. Of course, I’ve found it physically demanding – I’ve gone from not playing for seven months to playing nine games in however many days. I’ve just had to get rubs, as many as I can, and I go with some of the lads to a cryochamber. It’s equivalent to an ice bath, to get your legs ready for the next day. It’s very effective. Most of the lads do that.”

From Arsenal, Bola went to Blackpool, then to Middlesbrough in summer 2019, then back to Blackpool on loan last January. A peripheral figure when Warnock arrived, Bola is another who has been revitalised by this manager, part of a regular back four with an average age under 24.

 

Game 9: Saturday, December 19

Birmingham 1-4 Middlesbrough 

Aitor Karanka was the last manager to oversee a Middlesbrough promotion – in 2016. Today, he watches his Birmingham team take an early lead. Middlesbrough have made two changes and the reprieved Morsy starts. Saville shines, as does Lewis Wing, now 25 and still trying to force a starting position.

Middlesbrough have the joint-best home record in the division, but had won only one of nine away games. Dr Tatham has been putting together a home-and-away physicality analysis for Warnock. It will have looked better after Assombalonga and Saville made it 2-1 at half-time and then two goalkeeping errors from Neil Etheridge gave the visitors two more goals – Wing getting the last. Etheridge was one of Warnock’s mainstay players at Cardiff, starting all but one of the 46 games in that 2017-18 promotion season.

It was Middlesbrough’s biggest away win for six years and meant no sombre bus journey home.

“With a result like that you don’t feel the tiredness,” Warnock beams in a cold St Andrew’s corridor. “I didn’t want to bring anyone off late on because I didn’t want anyone to go on and pull a muscle. To get through all them games – Dijksteel in particular, he’s nowhere near fit – has been amazing. I can’t praise them enough, the players. If you saw the treatment table the day after games – we’ve had Wednesday games all December. You recover next day, then you’re onto set pieces on the Friday for the Saturday, so we’ve had no rest whatsoever.

“I feel tired. Bloody hell, it’s hard. The night before is hard, so many games. Your mind is always rushing ahead and I don’t sleep well on a Friday night anyway. I don’t eat well on a Saturday either. I can eat at nine in the morning, then I can’t eat anything until 6.30 at night. So that’s been three times a week.

“But the lads have been brilliant. We lost two on the trot away from home and there was all the negativity, doom and gloom, which I’ve seen a few times over the years. But you can’t let it get to you, and I’ve such a good bunch of lads I knew they’d come back. And to come back like that, win three games…”

It was why he stopped them leaving the pitch and called them into a circle.

“I just wanted to thank them and tell them to remember this. I don’t often give them a rollicking, but I had to on that particular day (after losing to Preston). But we’ve had three wins since and I just thanked them for all their efforts — Paddy McNair doing bloody overlaps in the 90th minute. They’ve put some work in. They listened. We all gave Wingy a round of applause.”

Warnock named two goalkeepers on the bench against Birmingham to fill it. Overall, the Championship’s number of subs on this last weekend declined to 3.2, its lowest tally. That might be due to availability or willingness of managers to push certain players knowing there was a rare week off coming. “Birmingham made five changes today,” Warnock says, “we couldn’t have made five changes.

“I’m glad we’ve got this week now. It’s great to have a rest. But we can’t forget what a pandemic we have. I’ve said it again to the lads that we’ve got to be so careful. But it’s great knowing I’m going to go to bed tonight and can get up late tomorrow – and I can get up late on Monday because we’re not training. It’s great. It feels like such a luxury.”

 

 

 

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Just now, TLF10 said:

@BillyWoofs_shinpad. Top man for posting that. Will have a proper read on my lunch but i do love articles like this where you get insider reporting almost. Much appreciated.  

No worries, I should have posted it in the other Boro stuff thread but I was half asleep, do it can stay here. Enjoy. 

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1 minute ago, BillyWoofs_shinpad said:

No worries, I should have posted it in the other Boro stuff thread but I was half asleep, do it can stay here. Enjoy. 

Seeing as you posted it in the wrong thread I won’t bother reading it. I understand that knowledge is power but rules are rules 😉


 

 

(Thanks for posting , great read) 

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18 minutes ago, BillyWoofs_shinpad said:

Steve Bruce will be ok, he just needs to use the word “wor” in the middle of every sentence and the dirty mags supporters will lap it up. 

That and Ashley probably knows he's not gonna find anyone better to take on the job, as long as he's in charge. He was on to a good thing with Benitez, but refused to back him properly.

 

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