IT is 98 days since Middlesbrough were afforded a joyous promotion party at the Riverside and Teesside can expect another sell-out crowd to converge at the stadium today.
The Riverside will stage its first Premier League match since May 16, 2009 and it is occasions like today’s that Aitor Karanka will have been envisaging when he was handed the Boro reins in October, 2013.
In reality, top-flight football will have seemed a distant prospect when the Basque took the helm. It also seemed a fair way over the horizon 12 months ago as Boro coped with the hangover of play-off final defeat at the end of 2014-15.
Karma was provided by Boro ending their seven-season exile amid tumultuous scenes against Brighton on May 7 – and Karanka is the first to admit that the fixtures on his office wall at the club’s Rockliffe Park training base leap out more than the ones which he scanned 12 months ago.
Karanka, who could hand debuts to several players, including Victor Valdes, Alvaro Negredo, Marten de Roon and Viktor Fischer, today, said: “Last season we started (the Championship) again after losing a final.
“It was tough to arrive into my office and to take all the games off the wall, and put another 46 games on the wall.
“But now it’s different. Everything has changed – the emotions, the players, the people on the street. Everything.”
Promotion was the be-all and end-all for the Teessiders last term and despite expectations being high following a productive close-season with many fans confident that Boro can do more than just survive this season, the ever-grounded Karanka remains pragmatic, even if he is still dreaming.
Boro are seeking to make club history today, having never previously won their opening top-flight game of the season following promotion.
Karanka said: “The aim is for us to stay in the Premier League, to build the foundations and to be here long term.
“We have worked really hard to get here. For everybody it has been a dream – so imagine what it has been like for me.
“We need to keep the dream going. Everyone is excited, the people on the streets are thinking about the game on Saturday. The club is ready for this.”
Karanka revealed that he expects captain Grant Leadbitter to be sidelined for the opening couple of months of the campaign following hernia surgery earlier in the summer.