ROY of the Rovers. Jumpers for goalposts. Everyone loves a football fairytale. And there were two to enjoy in the Boro’s slightly stodgy Championship curtain raiser at Deepdale.
The performance and result at Preston may have been disappointing. Given the summer spending you would expect the title favourites to beat a newly promoted side no matter how well organised and spirited.
Aitor wasn’t happy. But at least frustrated fans could relish two heart-warming stories of local lads from opposite ends of the career path and profile spectrum wearing the shirt of their home town club with pride.
Prodigal play-maker Stewart Downing was making his much anticipated second debut for the club after return from a six year exile in the elite.
And teenage tackler Dael Fry, the latest centre-back to roll off the Hurworth Academy production, line was also making his bow as his fast track development found him in the first team well ahead of schedule.
Downing was the big ticket purchase of the summer. His is a narrative that combines a degree of sentiment with cash. He is the archetypal Teesside who wanted to come home but Boro had to bridge the yawning financial gap between the second tier and the top flight to make it happen. It speaks of ambition and risk, the need for a spark and the need for a totem.
One of our own: prodigal playmaker makes second bow
Downing will get a lot of attention this term. Firstly from the outside national media; he is the one Boro player the national pundits will recognise. His surprising Sky Sports Boro man of the match nomination despite not being the best will no doubt be the first of many.
But he will also be the focus of the hopes and expectations of the Boro fans. He is the bums-on-seats merchant, the shirt selling face of an ambitious new project. He is the quarter-back, the match-winner elect that if if all goes to plan will be hailed as the catalyst for a famous promotion.
There is the slightest hint of Arthurian legend in the mix with our hero returning to save the Boro nation at a time of need, what with Juninho not being available. The one time slightly meek match-winner is an unlikely leader but if he can inspire the team, if he can pull the strings and orchestrate the victories that pile on the points his legend will grow.
Certainly the ingredients are there for him to be a hero. Supporters want him to succeed and be the galvanising presence in a famous campaign. The first loud chorus of “one of our own” saluted him after just two minutes. Hopefully that will be part of the soundtrack of the season.
Stewart Dowing is an important symbolic signing. He personifies the return of the good times. Six years after leaving in a £12m Aston Villa bound post-relegation escape pod after relegation, Downing returning to take up the challenge of taking his home town club back to the big time speaks of a new age of ambition and spending. New horizons. New possibilities
His exit in the summer of 2009 was the start of a new Dark Age for Boro. After years of unprecedented spending, glamour and success the club embarked on a period of belt-tightening. The first team was filleted of big names and big earners and after relegation suffered a financial toxic shop, a cultural dislocation and took up frustrating residence on the second shelf. It has been a long, fruitless, cold purgatory of prudence so the return of Downing offers the prospect of rebooting Boro as big time.
But also making his senior bow at the other end of the football life cycle was Dael Fry, a strapping 17-year-old defender who has come out of nowhere over the summer to seize a shirt.
Fry has been outstanding in the treble winning Academy Under-21 side. He also was the key player in the Under-18s team that won their national title. Last summer he won the U17 European Championships with England.
One of our own: Ayazz. Dael Fry takes one for the team.
That trajectory impressed Aitor Karanka and the boss took the stopper to Marbella with the first team squad in July where he more than matched the muscle of the men in training and on the pitch.
Fry stepped up another gear in pre-season and has been solid, composed and fearless at the back in the friendlies – but even he must have been stunned to be in the team for the opener.
You need a bit of luck sometimes. First the post-European Under-21 Championship absence then the unfortunate hamstring injury to Ben Gibson at Barnsley opened the door for Dael – the phonetic Teesside spelling – and suddenly he was the only realistic choice alongside Daniel Ayala at the back for the Getafe game. And he took his opportunity.
And while Karanka has signed Jack Stephens on loan as centre-back cover the boss likes players to assimilate his “philosophy and methodology” so Fry got the nod for the opener. And what a display. He and not Downing should have been the one taking home the bubbly.
He showed he was more than up to the no-quarters given physical challenge of competitive clashes against battle-scarred veterans with his robust running battle with feisty Joe Garner, a seething striker who seemed to be channelling one man riot Paul Dickov.
After just four minutes he almost took the niggley Preston frontman’s head-off as he took a mighty swing with a high boot at a bouncing ball and whacked him full in the chops. That showed he had a ruthless streak and would not flinch in the heat of battle and deserved a quick chorus of “one of our own” too. Or “Teesside Aggro.” It was a good start.
There followed 90 enthralling minutes of hand-to-hand combat: pushing and pulling, barging in from behind in crunch aerial challenges, bony elbows, scything tackles and snarling scraps around the box.
Bubbling Boro: tempers bubble over as the midfield get to grips with the game.
As the sometimes feisty game unfolded Fry was right in the thick of the action and never looked out of place. He’s 17. He’s a machine. I really enjoyed watching him. He could turn out to be good ‘un.
The two players are separated in footballing terms by a generation and a massive cultural gap – but geographically they are a keeper’s kick apart.
Downing is from Pallister Park. Fry from Berwick Hills. They both probably cut their teeth playing on the Old Vic pitches. Both are living the dream.
Alright, the fairytale didn’t end up happy ever after. It was a sticky start with a frustrating goalless draw. But it is May when we need the happy ending.