SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Middlesbrough skipper determined to turn things around in the manner of his cricketing compatriots (From Darlington and Stockton Times)
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SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Middlesbrough skipper determined to turn things around in the manner of his cricketing compatriots
AS the only remaining Australian in the Middlesbrough squad, Rhys Williams has found himself on the receiving end of some training-ground banter this summer.
“It’s been a tough time to be an Australian, what with the Ashes coming on the back of the Lions series defeat,” said the Middlesbrough skipper, who was born in Perth to an English father and Indian mother. “I’ve had a fair bit of ribbing from the English lads, but they’ve been quiet for the last decade so I suppose they have to take their chance when it comes around.
“It’s not been great, but Australia always bounce back. There’s no one like us for fighting back and turning things around.”
Right on cue, Michael Clarke and his fellow Australian cricketers have proved as much over the last two days, staging a fabulous fightback in the third Ashes Test at Old Trafford. Tomorrow, it is Williams’ turn to prove that when it comes to Australian sport, resilience is not restricted to the cricket field.
Touted as a potential star in the making when he burst into Middlesbrough’s first team under Gareth Southgate, the last three years have not been kind to the amiable 25-year-old.
In 2010, he suffered a pelvic problem that resulted in his exclusion from Australia’s World Cup squad – “it’s hard to be known as the kid who missed the World Cup through an injury” - and forced him to miss the first seven months of the following campaign.
Last season, he suffered injury heartbreak again, damaging his ankle ligaments in August’s Capital One Cup win at Gillingham and not returning until the Boxing Day win over Blackburn.
Desperate to make up for lost time, by his own admission he pushed himself too hard in the early stages of his recovery and struggled to regain both form and fitness in the second half of the campaign. Needless to say, Boro’s calamitous post-Christmas form did little to improve his mood.
The summer break came at an opportune moment, with Williams’ wedding providing an opportunity to take stock of where his life was heading.
New season; new start. And perhaps more importantly, a new opportunity to rediscover the form that once made him one of the most highly-rated players in the Football League.
“I always seem to say this, but hopefully this season will be the season (when injuries don’t happen),” said Williams, who is finally set to enjoy an extended run at centre-half after previous attempts to mould him into a central midfielder did not really succeed. “If it is, then there’ll be no excuses. I have to show I can come back from everything that’s happened and be better than I’ve been before.
“It’s been nice to get a full pre-season under my belt. I haven’t really had that for four years and it’s been great to be able to do as much as the rest of the boys. It’s nice to be on a level with them once the season is starting.
“I missed four months of football last season and then did a couple of weeks trying to get fit, but having missed pre-season, I wasn’t fit enough. I think that ultimately showed in my performances and in terms of trying to lead the team like I should have been, I just wasn’t doing it.
“I feel good this pre-season though and I’ve been playing quite well. I know I keep saying it, but hopefully this is the year.”
An in-form Williams would undoubtedly make a major difference to a Middlesbrough side that has been shorn of 11 senior players since the end of last season.
Dean Whitehead and Jozsef Varga have arrived to add some midfield clout – Frazer Richardson was confirmed as a third summer signing yesterday - and with the transfer window not due to close until the start of September, Mowbray remains confident of being able to make further additions.
Yet when the Championship season begins with a home game against Leicester this afternoon, it will be hard not to feel that Boro’s hopes of returning to the Premier League have been hampered rather than helped by this summer’s events.
That, however, is the outside view. Within the Teessiders’ camp there is a renewed sense of unity, perhaps borne in part out of a desire to prove the doubters’ wrong, and a quiet confidence that promotion is a realistic ambition for a squad that still contains the likes of Jason Steele, Jonathan Woodgate, Grant Leadbitter and Marvin Emnes.
“People always say, ‘The longer you’re down here, the harder it is to get back up’, and maybe that’s true,” said Williams. “A lot of examples have shown that and a lot of teams can call themselves Premier League clubs in waiting.
“But with us, it’s really true. If you look around our squad, we’ve got the names here and the stature, it’s just about making it happen. I think it is just a matter of time, although the longer it goes on, the harder it does become.
“It’ll be a tighter squad than it was last year, but sometimes that can help. Hopefully, this will be the year when we get everything right.”
While the number of additions to this point has perhaps not been as high as Mowbray would have liked, the extent of some of the other changes at Rockliffe Park has been pronounced.
The use of GPS technology has transformed the pre-season programme, with the entire squad wearing monitors throughout training and matches to enable Boro’s sports science staff to tailor specific programmes to the requirements of each player.
The Rockliffe Park interior has also undergone a radical transformation, with Mowbray overseeing the installation of a series of motivational photographs and quotes that now greet the players as they attend training every day.
“It’s probably just gone that one step more professional with everything,” said Williams. “There have been a lot of changes in the building and that’s been done for a reason. The training ground has been completely redecorated, and a lot of motivational scenes and statements have been added to the walls.
“We used little bits of GPS technology last year, but now every player has been wearing it and everyone’s doing the same amount of workload. It’s good that we’re all in this together and that’s how it should be.”
The hope is that the pre-season alterations will cut down on the number of injuries sustained by Boro’s players last season, and guard against the chronic downturn in form that has blighted each of the last two campaigns.
Williams has more reason than most to ensure his performances do not tail off in the second half of the season, as Australia are currently one of only five sides to have booked a place in next summer’s World Cup finals alongside Brazil, Japan, South Korea and Iran.
When the defender missed out on South Africa in 2010, it was the biggest disappointment of his career. Play well for Middlesbrough this season, and next summer he could be strutting his stuff at the Maracana.
“The World Cup is definitely in my mind, but ultimately it will all come down to me,” he said. “If I’m doing my job with Middlesbrough, then it’s all down to them whether they pick me.
“I can only do my own thing. I can’t pick the squad or decide whether I play. I’ve never taken my spot for granted, and the summer showed that when I didn’t get picked for the international games.
“It was a kick in the teeth, but I think it was a sign to show I need to work harder for what I want. I need to be at that World Cup, especially after missing the last one.”
Using the disappointment of past events as a motivation for future improvements - on the evidence of the last two days at Old Trafford, it is a well-worn Australian trick.
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