TFN’s Hugo Greenhalgh previews Middlesbrough ahead of their FA Cup clash against Arsenal and explains why there is much to admire about the North East club…
Last season, Middlesbrough made the rather brave managerial appointment of Aitor Karanka. While a refreshing change from the same old names on the British managerial merry-go-round, Karanka had never managed a league game before he arrived on Teesside. His credentials were based on his time coaching the Spain U-16s and three years spent as Jose Mourinho’s assistant at Real Madrid. His Real appointment was even something of a surprise for Karanka, who had never worked with Mourinho before. The recommendation had come from former Bernabeu teammates, Luis Figo and Clarence Seedorf – high praise indeed.
One year on and Karanka is doing an excellent job at Boro. His first season was one of stabilisation and ensuring the club didn’t slip further down the table. They were in the bottom half when he joined but he guided them to a 12th place finish. This season has been a different story, however, and Karanka is beginning to put his own stamp on the club. Middlesbrough are top of the Championship following their defeat of Blackpool on Tuesday night and are now 10 games unbeaten.
As Karanka promised when he started at Boro, several players have joined on loan from Chelsea due to his useful contact, Mourinho. 21-year-old striker Patrick Bamford has excelled recently and has 11 goals so far this season. The floppy-haired, privately-educated youngster, who rejected a scholarship from Harvard to concentrate on his football career, initially seemed quite detached from it all. His interviews were delivered in blasé fashion, as if Boro were only a means to an end in his development. However, a combination of positive vibes and a realisation that he may be better off at a club like Middlesbrough in the long-term have helped Bamford to enjoy his football at the Riverside.
Karanka has also used his contacts in Spain to bring in some Hispanic talent. Boro now have four Spaniards in Kike, Damià, Daniel Ayala and Tomás Mejías, with Argentinian Emmanuel Ledesma and Equatorial Guinean Emilio Nsue making up a strong, Spanish-speaking contingent. Nsue was born in Majorca and was a youth international for Spain up until Under-21 level but two years ago committed to representing Equatorial Guinea, the country of his father’s birth. He has just returned from captaining them to the AFCON Semi Finals.
There’s also a cohort of locally-born players in this Boro side, who are helping to foster a strong team spirit and rekindle a bond between the club and its supporters. Before he joined Leeds, Jonathan Woodgate was at the Boro academy and he returned to his boyhood club in 2012. The past few seasons have been especially difficult for Woodgate as his injury problems have continued but Karanka has recognised the contribution he can make as a senior statesman. On the subject of retirement, Woodgate recently said, “I was close to it. I went to see the manager and told him I was thinking seriously about retirement but he said, ‘no, don’t, you should enjoy what’s left of your playing time and we want you around. We want your experience’.”
As well as Woodgate, Ben Gibson and Adam Reach also represent a local connection. Gibson is the nephew of chairman Steve Gibson, a lifelong Boro fan who has been in the position for 21 years. Ben came through the academy and has been at the club for a decade. Reach is another academy product and has made some important contributions on the left wing this season. While Grant Leadbitter forged his career at rivals Sunderland, he was born 30 miles up the A1 in County Durham and since joining Boro in 2012 has emerged as the club’s talisman this season, scoring 12 goals.
Optimism in general is high at the moment. Talented playmaker Lee Tomlin won January Player of the Month and showed he can perform on the grand stage too, with an excellent display in the 2-0 win at Manchester City. Meanwhile, Karanka received the Manager’s Award. The team are also starting to recognise their popularity within the town. Bamford and new signing Adam Forshaw ate their first parmos last week – breaded chicken, topped with creamy sauce and cheese, served with chips and something of a Teesside rite of passage.
Just days after their gripping penalty shoot-out against Liverpool in the League Cup in September, I watched Boro play Charlton Athletic at the Valley. The game was a little turgid, but showed glimpses of what the team could offer. Bamford bounded around all game and looked lively, while Reach and Albert Adomah played with urgency until the latter was sent off in the second half.
However, what impressed me most was the Boro support. Here was a diverse fanbase, getting behind their team and beginning to respond to a change in mentality at the club. Middlesbrough are reported to have one of the highest proportions of female fans at 20%, a figure that could always be higher but is nonetheless a noticeable presence. At a time when some female fans are still put off attending football due to purveying sexist attitudes within the game, I was encouraged to see that many women had made the trip down to London.
Sunday’s trip to Arsenal is another sell out in the away end, something which Boro fans are making a habit of this season. A screening of the game at the Riverside is also sold out. This will be a great opportunity to test themselves against an Arsenal side who have looked rusty in their last two games and never seem too far from capitulation. Even if Boro are knocked out, it may not be long before they return to the Emirates in any case.