Karanka: Boro were quickly ready to fight again

Middlesbrough head coach Aitor Karanka cuts a dejected figure after last year's play-off final loss at Wembley (Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire).Middlesbrough head coach Aitor Karanka cuts a dejected figure after last year's play-off final loss at Wembley (Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire).
Middlesbrough head coach Aitor Karanka cuts a dejected figure after last year's play-off final loss at Wembley (Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire).
FOR those Middlesbrough players who recall the gut-wrenching feeling of blowing promotion at Wembley last Spring Bank Holiday, no team talk will be necessary ahead of tomorrow's similarly seismic occasion.

It is said that the revered home of football is no place for losers, and it most definitely is not.

But amid the tears of deep-seated disappointment, which will have been shed following their 2-0 Championship play-off final defeat to Norwich City 347 days ago, a steely resolve was quickly forged in the view of head coach Aitor Karanka.

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Another saying says that what does not kill you makes you stronger. It is what legendary former Boro manager Bruce Rioch – the Aldershot-born son of an army sergeant major – referred to as drawing adversity out of strength as his class of ’86 did after the club nearly went to the wall just under 30 years ago.

For Karanka, the fightback post Wembley started in earnest a month or so later when his players reconvened at their Rockliffe Park training ground for pre-season training in early July.

Where Karanka feared a post-Wembley hangover, he encountered resolution.

Around 10 months on, Boro – after a long and winding road – have a chance of redemption at a sold-out Riverside tomorrow lunch-time when they stride out against promotion rivals Brighton in another winner-takes-all game in front of another expectant sea of Teesside red.

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Expect a determined and knowing look or two to be exchanged by those players who lined up at Wembley. No words are likely to be required.

Karanka said: “The day made us stronger. When you lose a final and analyse what happened and the following season, and you are better than what you were, it is because you learned and are stronger.

“We are more mature and experienced with better players and last season was a good lesson for everybody.

“In my first week here (this season), especially with the players who had been at Wembley, I was a little bit concerned because everyone had told me that the following season is difficult.

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“But nobody said anything about the final and all of them were thinking of the future and this season. The players were ready to fight again and that is the reason we are in the position we are in now.

“The players who have arrived have also been doing really well and the changing room is really strong.”

Of those players in the starting line-up who endured Wembley despair against Norwich, six – captain Grant Leadbitter, Adam Clayton, Daniel Ayala, Ben Gibson, Albert Adomah and Dimi Konstantopoulos – are virtually certain to start against Brighton tomorrow with a seventh in George Friend likely to feature from the off if he wins his fitness race.

All have shown their strong footballing jaw since as they and their team-mates have, by virtue of last-gasp wins this Spring against Hull City, Reading and Bolton, helped vanquish memories of ‘Karankagate’ and poor new year results at the relegation-haunted quartet of Charlton, Rotherham, MK Dons and Bristol City.

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The likes of Leadbitter, Friend and Adomah were also forced to show their mettle in the early weeks of Karanka’s reign in late 2013 when Boro were embroiled in a relegation scrap and not a promotion battle – as the Spaniard well remembers, with the character of his side never up for question.

Karanka, whose side have taken three more points than they managed in their automatic promotion near-miss of 2014-15 with one game to go, added: “We have players who were playing at Millwall two and a half years ago and we were two points off the relegation positions.

“Those are the kind of players I would like to have all through my career.

“That game for me was pressure. After that game, to lose a final the following season makes you stronger and that’s life and you learn.

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“In the last two and a half years, we have played lots of important games. We played the final, Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton and Arsenal and we have much more experience now.”

A slender margin of goal difference separates Boro and Brighton tomorrow and the stakes could not be higher, with victory for either side worth a reported £170m.

With that brings inevitable pressure, but it is a pressure shared according to Karanka ahead of a game where the margins between both combatants look wafer-thin, with Boro unbeaten in nine matches and Brighton having not seen their colours lowered for 13 games.

He added: “I think there is pressure for everybody. A game to get promotion is pressure for everybody.

“The best way to forget the pressure is to watch our last nine games and when you do that, you can be calm.”