WHEN Chris Wilder was appointed as Middlesbrough manager last November, he expressed a hope that when he left the club, they would no longer be a “mid-table team in the Championship”. Eleven months on, and his ambition has been fulfilled. The problem, of course, is that he leaves with the Teessiders floundering in the bottom three rather than pushing for promotion.
There were some notable highlights under the 55-year-old, whose departure leaves Boro searching for their sixth permanent manager in the space of less than five years, but ultimately, his managerial tenure at the Riverside will be remembered for flatlining performances on the pitch and destructive dalliances with top-flight suitors away from the field of play. While he will no doubt argue otherwise, it is hard not to feel that, increasingly, one became a direct result of the other.
Wilder bequeaths his successor a team that is misfiring and a club that is suffering from tensions, particularly over recruitment, that eventually became too damaging to ignore, but for all that things had become untenable by the point his dismissal was confirmed this morning, the speed of the unravelling remains remarkable. For the first half of his reign, Wilder was the toast of Teesside and seemingly the solution to the club’s woes.
Having inherited a side that was sitting in 14th position when Neil Warnock was sacked, Wilder had led Boro into the play-off places by the end of last year.
February’s 4-1 win thrashing of Derby County felt like a key moment, and came less than a fortnight after Wilder’s Boro side had knocked Manchester United out of the FA Cup by winning a penalty shoot-out at Old Trafford. The fifth-round home win over Tottenham that came a few weeks later proved the high point of Wilder’s reign, and came at a time when Boro fans were serenading their boss with the ‘Oh, Wilder said’ chant that became the soundtrack to his best moments on Teesside.
Losing to Chelsea in the quarter-finals was hardly an embarrassment, but a pivotal moment in Wilder’s reign arrived in mid-April when Sean Dyche’s dismissal at Burnley saw the Boro boss linked with the vacant managerial position at Turf Moor.
Wilder failed to dismiss the links in the immediate aftermath of a goalless draw to Bournemouth, and once again refused to distance himself from the Burnley job when the same questions were raised in the wake of a damaging home defeat to Huddersfield. Was he wanting to keep his options open or was it a power play to try to put pressure on Steve Gibson ahead of the summer transfer window? Either way, it was an episode that backfired spectacularly, infuriating a large section of the fanbase and driving a wedge between Wilder and some key figures in both the dressing room and executive offices at Rockliffe Park.
When Boro’s form nosedived in the final few weeks of the season, culminating in the 4-1 thrashing at Preston that confirmed the club’s failure to make the play-offs, it was hard not to conclude that Wilder’s flirtations with Burnley, whether planned or not, had been a factor. As a result, he was on the back foot as he headed into the summer transfer window looking to overhaul a large swathe of his squad.
By the end of August, he was bemoaning Boro’s transfer activity, particularly when it came to the final week of the window, which he openly described as “disappointing”. As was the case under his predecessor, recruitment had become a battleground, with Wilder’s targets and hands-on way of working often putting him at loggerheads with the club’s scouting and recruitment operation, which is headed up by head of football Kieran Scott.
Is recruitment an endemic problem at Middlesbrough? If has felt that way under the last two managers, but that says more about a failure to appoint head coaches who suit the structure and processes Scott is trying to introduce than a deep-rooted issue with those structures and processes themselves.
There is nothing inherently wrong with taking power and influence over recruitment away from a manager and instead placing it in the hands of a recruitment specialist, especially if it results in the evolution of a strong sense of club DNA that remains intact when a manager leaves or a player is sold. It only works if the manager or head coach buys into it though, and just as Warnock had wanted a much greater say over the identity of new signings, so Wilder wanted to take things into his own hands. The result, in both instances, was a messy attempt at compromise in which no one really got what they wanted.
Wilder felt his squad was at least a striker short, and was clearly unhappy at the failure to sign any cover for Jonny Howson on deadline day, hence his dash to sign up Massimo Luongo as a free agent within days of the window closing. Boro’s recruitment team might well point to Marcus Forss, a Finland international with experience of playing in the Premier League, and Matthew Hoppe, a USA international who has played in La Liga, and claim there are strikers within the squad, it is just that Wilder has been unwilling to play them.
Wilder’s description of Hoppe as a “development player” did not go down well, and there have been other examples of him effectively writing off players, only to then have to turn to them because things have not developed as planned. Last week, he was claiming Chuba Akpom’s return from injury would be a “major boost”. In the summer, he was briefing that the striker did not have a future at the club.
Marc Bola is another player who started the summer as an outcast, only to quickly evolve into an important performer, and having taken the number two shirt away from Anfernee Dijksteel, Wilder rapidly found himself relying on the defender. Similarly, while Dael Fry was unceremoniously dumped to accommodate the arrival of Darragh Lenihan, the homegrown centre-half, whose ties to the club make him an important figure in the dressing room, was one of the players Wilder had to rely on to try to dig him out of trouble in his final few games.
That trouble has been apparent all season, with the first-half capitulation at QPR on the second weekend of the campaign flagging up defensive frailties and a soft underbelly that became key characteristics of Wilder’s Boro team.
The Teessiders conceded three goals in the space of 25 minutes at Loftus Road, a collapse that mirrored the implosions that proved so damaging against Barnsley, Sheffield United and Preston last season and that was repeated in the 3-2 defeat to Cardiff in what proved to be Wilder’s penultimate home game.
The Cardiff reverse came as Wilder was being linked with a possible move to Bournemouth, a bout of speculation that bore obvious parallels to the Burnley talk from five months earlier. Again, Wilder’s name was being touted with top-flight employers. Again, it felt as though his focus was not exclusively trained on what was going on at Middlesbrough.
The links to the Vitality Stadium ultimately came to nothing, but alarmingly, there was not much vitality to Boro’s performances either. The goalless bore draw with Rotherham that preceded the international break might well have heralded the end of Wilder’s reign, but he was allowed to limp through to Saturday’s game at Coventry, which proved his final act.
He leaves with his side sitting in 22nd position, an unacceptable situation whether he feels he has been let down or not. As a result of his failings, his successor’s first task will be to ensure Boro do not spend next season in League One. Suddenly, the idea of being a “mid-table team” does not look so unappealing.