How ex-Charlton man Anfernee Dijksteel turned his career around at Middlesbrough and became Neil Warnock's 'favourite player'
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The 24-year-old was just finding his feet after signing for Boro from Charlton, yet the team’s early struggles created a challenging environment during the full-back’s first taste of Championship football.
Dijksteel clearly had ability after becoming Charlton’s first-choice right-back and helping the club win promotion from League One via the play-offs in 2019.
At the end of the campaign, Addicks boss Lee Bowyer was full of praise for Dijksteel, who was a defensive midfielder when he first moved to London from NIKE’s academy in 2016.
“The kid’s a machine,” said Bowyer when asked about the Dutchman before Charlton’s play-off final victory over Sunderland.
“His athleticism is really good. He’s working on his end product every day. Once he gets that right then he’ll be very, very good in that position.”
The injury setback
Yet despite showing flashes of his ability during his first few months at Boro, it was clear Dijksteel, a quiet character on and off the pitch, was struggling to adapt on Teesside.
Then came the dreaded injury setback during a Championship meeting with Barnsley last November, an issue which required an operation and would sideline the defender for seven months.
"After the injury it was difficult, I was far from home,” Dijksteel admitted in an interview with the club’s website this week.
The defender’s injury then allowed Djed Spence to break into Boro’s first team and establish himself as Boro’s first-choice option on the right side of defence. After progressing through the under-23s set-up, it was Spence who was like the new signing.
Yet Dijksteel’s absence coincided with football’s suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the three-month delay allowed the Dutchman to play a part in Boro’s relegation fight.
A fresh start under Warnock
Neil Warnock’s arrival also gave everyone a fresh start at the Riverside, even if results were paramount at the time.
The manager’s first comments about Dijksteel suggested the player would be eased back into action, especially as Warnock was looking for no-nonsense defenders to keep the ball out of Boro’s net.
“Dijksteel, he’s an attacking full-back," said Warnock in July. “I wouldn’t class him as a defensive full-back but it would be good to have another body on board like that which allows Jonny Howson to play his normal position.”
Yet the performance which prompted many Boro fans to sit up and take note was Dijksteel’s display in a vital 2-1 win at Reading, when he was deployed on the right of a back four behind Spence.
“I wanted to give Djed more of an attacking role where he could help Diks,” said Warnock after the game. “Dijks has done well in training but I don’t know enough about him, I haven’t seen him play.
“I wanted to put Djed in front of him to help him out and I thought Djed could get some crosses in.”
That performance convinced Warnock to start Dijksteel in Boro’s final two games of the campaign against Cardiff and Sheffield Wednesday, with the defender starting on the right of a back three in the latter.
Dijksteel’s showing in the win at Hillsborough was arguably even more important as it showed his versatility and qualities when bringing the ball out from the back.
Going from strength to strength
Due to Boro’s lack of natural centre-backs and options in the wing-back positions, Warnock elected to stick with a back three during pre-season and the start of the 2020/21 campaign, providing extra defensive security.
The system suited Dijksteel perfectly. “I thought he was unbelievable,” said Warnock following Boro’s Championship opener at Watford in September.
From there, the Dutchman has gone from strength to strength, impressing as a right-back in a back four and in a three-man backline.
And after saying Dijksteel hardly spoke back in the summer, Warnock has clearly helped boost the player’s confidence over the last few months.
"Dijksteel has become my favourite player in front of the lads," joked Warnock during a recent Zoom Q&A with members of Middlesbrough Supporters Forum. "I hold a brolly above him when I am giving team talks.
"I ask him if he wants a mint when I get one out of my pocket or some gum, then you have Tav spitting dust.
"I think because I have given him the confidence like that, he has blossomed as a player, I do not think you will find a better player anywhere in the division now. So, long may that continue.
"He is a quiet lad, so I think we have just given him some confidence, I think he will end up as a massive asset to the club because it wouldn’t bother him playing against Man City tomorrow.”
A new deal at Boro
Dijksteel’s performances led to the player earning a new four-and-a-half-year contract at the start of this week. Suddenly the £2million Boro paid Charlton seems like a bargain.
"He's worked ever so hard since I came here, and I've been really pleased with the improvement he's shown in his overall game,” added Warnock after the defender put pen to paper.
"He's a great signing for Middlesbrough for the next few years."
Dijksteel is often captured with a smile on his face during pictures of Boro’s training sessions, a further indication of the feelgood factor among the group.
"It feels like a family here, we're learning more about each other every day,” said Dijksteel after signing his new contract. “I'm feeling fit, strong and I'm enjoying every minute of it."
It’s been a rollercoaster 12 months for the 24-year-old but his Boro career is finally back on track, and progressing at a rapid rate.