8:00am Saturday 31st August 2013
By Steph Clark
WHEN George Friend was taken off 60 minutes into his league debut for Middlesbrough just over twelve months ago, he knew something had to change.
Manager Tony Mowbray had asked his new defender to be more positive, more attack-minded, but Friend, who had largely played as a centre-half for his previous club Doncaster Rovers, wasn’t sure.
Now, though, having played the majority of last season as a marauding left-back and bagged his first goal in three years against Wigan Athletic last weekend Friend has revealed his manager’s actions spurred him on to prove he could adapt into a new role.
“I was brought in as a utility defender and the manager told me I was going to be number two to Joe Bennett,” Friend revealed. “He was injured at the time so I thought ‘just go for it’.
“He did want me to be a bit more attacking, because in my first game at Barnsley I just sat in the back four and he took me off so after that I showed him I can be attacking and from there it seemed to click quite nicely.”
Nicely indeed. Friend’s transition from centre-half to left-back has proved a huge success. Even if he did miss a chunk of last season through injury, the 25-year-old impressed so much so that Premier League clubs began to take an interest.
However, a nasty hamstring injury kept him on the sidelines for over a month and the 25-year-old admits he struggled to regain form once he returned.
He appears to have put his injury problems firmly behind him now, though, and his performance at the DW Stadium was evidence Friend is getting back to him best.
“I hope I am,” he admitted. “The manager has wanted me to get back to that level of performance and the fans have as well. I felt like I was back to when I was playing my best football last week. It has taken me quite awhile to really try and get fit again and hopefully I’ll remain fit, but you never know with hamstrings.
“I don’t think people realised what an impact having that injury had on me in the second half of the season. Arguably the whole team didn’t play well but I know myself I personally didn’t hit the levels I did in the first half.
“Some of that probably was to do with my fitness and I perhaps came back a bit early and tried to play when I wasn’t 100 per cent. If you do that in this league you’ll be found out quite quickly.”
Friend’s impressive solo effort last Sunday proved why he is considered one of the best attacking full-backs in the Championship and having finally ended his scoring drought, the defender hopes it can be the first of many.
He said: “They say as a defender you’re not under pressure to score, but I’ve certainly found that since I’ve been here people have been expecting me to be joint top scorer! In my time here I’ve had a lot of chances so it was nice to see one finally go in. I’d love it if I can set up goals as well, but to score is a nice feeling. It was only my sixth career goal, but I can’t promise I’m going to do it every week!”
Friend will hope to build on his goalscoring exploits when Sheffield Wednesday visit the Riverside this afternoon, but he knows it won’t be easy.
The Tessiders are yet to claim their first home win of the season, but the 25-year-old believes the way visiting teams set up at the Riverside makes it hard for Boro to play a free-flowing attacking game.
“It’s so much harder for us to play at home, because teams don’t really like to attack us,” he said. “We have to break them down. We saw it with Blackpool and Accrington where they’ve chucked everyone behind the ball. I know the fans get frustrated but they have to understand it is tough to break a team down. That’s why I think we get more success away because they have to take the game to us.”
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