AITOR KARANKA has only been at Middlesbrough for 18 months, but the quietly-spoken Basque will assume iconic status on Teesside if events go Boro’s way this afternoon.
Mention the names of Jack Charlton and Bruce Rioch to Boro supporters and the respect and gratitude is obvious; Karanka is now on the threshold of being added to that number and earning a place in Teesside folklore should his side finish off the job today in north-west London.
Karanka arrived on Teesside in November, 2013, with Boro listing. The Caledonian excesses of the Gordon Strachan regime had proved calamitous, while the era of one of the club’s own in Tony Mowbray was only temporarily rehabilitative.
It is 41-year-old Karanka who has reconnected the club with sections of the Teesside public, just as Charlton, then 39, did in that memorable 1973-74 Division Two title-winning campaign when Boro won the league by 15 points under the two points for a win system.
And as a 40-year-old Rioch did during Boro’s remarkable rise to the top flight in 1987-88 following near liquidation in the summer of 1986. ‘Phenomenal’, as the sergeant major’s son regularly used to say.
This word would aptly describe’s Boro rise should promotion be clinched today.
The Teesside club were 16th in the Championship table and just five points above the bottom three when Karanka took over, his first game being a Yorkshire derby at Leeds United on November 23, 2013.
The punt that many thought chairman Steve Gibson was taking when he appointed the former Real Madrid defender now looks a particularly sage move.
Karanka leads out Boro today in their biggest game since the UEFA Cup final against Seville in Eindhoven in 2006 and he admits that his side’s journey and progress has arrived at a rapid rate of knots.
Karanka said: “I think it’s amazing (reaching the final) for everybody, especially for me.
“I came here 18 months ago and I couldn’t imagine at that time we would be playing at Wembley.
“We’re going there because, like I said after the game against Brentford, the players have had an amazing season and have done an amazing job every single day.
“For this reason they deserve to be at Wembley.”
Around 40,000 Boro supporters will pack out one half of Wembley daring to dream of the club ending their six-year exile from the Premier League, with Karanka focusing on the task in hand and not thinking ahead.
Karanka may be tender in managerial years, but he has sampled countless big-game occasions during his time as assistant to Jose Mourinho at the world’s most high-profile club in Real Madrid.
Playing the game and not the occasion is Karanka’s mantra and while some would say Boro may hold a slight psychological edge after doing the double over today’s opponents Norwich City in the regular season, the Spaniard says that matters little.
Karanka, whose side beat the Canaries 4-0 at the Riverside Stadium and triumphed 1-0 in a huge promotion clash at Carrow Road in April, said: “Beating Norwich in the league was important at the time but I don’t think it is very important now because a final is completely different.
“They have very good players, most of them have played in the Premier League. The players have to know it is not a normal game.
“The main thing is not to celebrate, because we haven’t achieved anything at this moment.
“But I think we need to know how beautiful this moment is for everybody.
“But again we have to play the final, because if we lose the game, on Tuesday everyone’s going to be upset.
“So I have to prepare the game thinking we can beat Norwich, and after the game we will see.”
Striker Patrick Bamford is facing a race against time to be fit for Boro’s date with destiny at Wembley.
The 21-year-old forward was an unused substitute for the 3-0 semi-final second-leg victory over Brentford after struggling to overcome a persistent ankle problem.
The injury was initially picked up in Boro’s win in Norfolk on April 17, but while the Chelsea loanee has not trained this week, he is expected to be available for selection today.
Defender Ben Gibson has returned to training after being laid low by a bout of tonsilitis earlier in the week and he is not a concern for the Spaniard.
Former Rotherham United striker Lewis Grabban returns to the Norwich squad after a three-game suspension.
Grabban missed the final game at home to Fulham and the two-legged play-off semi-final against Ipswich following his dismissal against the Millers. Grabban will hope to dislodge Huddersfield-born Cameron Jerome from the starting line-up.
Norwich are chasing a repeat, having previously triumphed at Wembley against a north-east side 30 years ago – after knocking out Ipswich in the semi-final. They beat Sunderland 1-0 in the League Cup final.
Just as 30 years ago, Juventus are in the European Cup final, a team in blue have won the top-flight title – it was Everton back in 1984-85 – and a Scandinavian country won the Eurovision Song contest. Boro will be desperate to avoid the stars aligning further for Norwich this afternoon.