“If you perform well, then you keep the shirt”.
It’s one of the most refreshing messages in football – and one Garry Monk can spell out to the entire Middlesbrough squad on Saturday against Nottingham Forest by keeping faith with Dael Fry.
The Boro boss has enjoyed a stellar week. Back-to-back home victories, six points and two clean sheets. Momentum is building on Teesside, confidence growing, excitement building.
Monk named an unchanged XI for Burton Albion on Tuesday, rewarding those who started the game against Sheffield United three days earlier. ‘Momentum through consistency’ seemed to be the message.
So it will be interesting to see what XI Monk opts for at the City Ground this weekend, a historical house of pain for Boro.
Aitor Karanka broke many of the club’s ancient away day hoodoos in 2015/16 – Wolves, Ipswich, QPR – and he became the first Boro boss to win away at Forest since 1999 too.
But Monk can expect a stern test again, with Forest seemingly rejuvenated rather than deflated following Britt Assombalonga’s departure this summer , and both sides head into the game having started the campaign well – with two wins from three.
The crunch decision for Monk to make is who he plays alongside Ben Gibson in the heart of Boro’s defence. Dael Fry deputised for Daniel Ayala against Sheffield United and Burton Albion, and came away with plenty of credit.
The 19-year-old Academy graduate hardly put a foot wrong over 180 minutes, and the old romantics on Teesside were surely warmed by the sight of two homegrown talents marshalling the Boro back-line.
It’s easy to forget that Fry is five years below Gibson. There is a decent case to suggest Fry is actually a more rounded centre-half than Gibson was at that age.
He’s been tipped for big things, after years of guidance from Jonathan Woodgate and Gibson at Rockliffe, and has already been tipped to become a future England captain by ex-Boro wide man Stuart Ripley.
Fry lifted the World Cup with England’s Under-20s in the summer, and has quietly accumulated experience over the last two years. He’s a far more accomplished defender than the raw 17-year-old who was unearthed at Preston on the opening day of 2015/16.
But is it too early for him to play week-in, week-out? Can he handle the rigorous demands of the Championship?
Monk certainly has a tough decision to make, with Ayala – a vital part of Boro’s success over the last three years – available again for selection after recovering from a muscular problem.
The Spaniard’s costly mistake at Wolves will inevitably have eaten away at him over the last fortnight, and he’ll be itching to be reunited alongside Gibson at the heart of Boro’s defence.
What should Monk do? Well, you’d have to say Fry – as young as he is – has done little wrong, so can count himself very unfortunate should he be overlooked in Nottingham on Saturday.
With a cup game against Scunthorpe scheduled for Tuesday, Fry and Ayala can both expect game-time over the coming days – regardless of who gets the nod against Mark Warburton’s side.
It’s a nice dilemma for Monk to have. But for me, Fry has done enough to be given another chance in a high-stakes duel.
“If you perform well, then you keep the shirt.” Fry will hope that’s the case this weekend.