ADAM FORSHAW, the Leeds United midfielder, is in no doubt about the debt he owes the manager who will today occupy the away dugout at Elland Road.
Under the tutelage of Aitor Karanka at Middlesbrough, the Liverpudlian went to Wembley for a play-off final, later won automatic promotion and then realised his dream of becoming a Premier League regular.
Not bad for someone whose senior appearances had largely come at League One level before Karanka took him to the Riverside from Wigan Athletic in January, 2015.
“Aitor Karanka was brilliant,” the 27-year-old told The Yorkshire Post ahead of today’s reunion with his old manager.
“I had a great relationship with him and we stay in touch, every so often getting in contact.
“He helped me fulfil my dream of playing in the Premier League for more or less a full season. I will always be thankful for that.”
Karanka, as he did at Boro, has already started to make an impact at the City Ground.
Appointed last January with Forest marginally closer to the relegation zone than the play-offs, the Spaniard set about the task of weighing up what was needed to turn the two-time European Cup winners into genuine promotion challengers.
A significant summer recruitment drive that included the £13.2m capture of Benfica’s Joao Carvalho was followed by an initially slow start, five of the opening seven games being drawn.
Since then, though, Forest have hit their stride and Wednesday’s 3-0 win at Bolton Wanderers means Karanka brings his side to Leeds just one place shy of the play-offs.
Leeds, back in pole position after their own midweek triumph over Ipswich Town, also sit just four points ahead of the East Midlands club to underline just how well Karanka is faring in his second English job.
“What he does really well is organisation,” added Forshaw. “He likes his teams to play a certain way. His team has to control the play.
“For me, as a midfielder, the set-up was great. There were basically two No 6s in front of the back four. That was great.
“It allowed me to try get on the ball, switch play and try to dictate things. I enjoyed it. We got a lot of touches on the ball. The biggest thing, of course, is we had success.”
Clinching runners-up spot on the final day of the 2015-16 Championship season was undoubtedly the pinnacle of Karanka’s four-and-a-half years on Teesside.
A year earlier, Boro had been beaten at Wembley by Norwich City in the play-off final and Forshaw vividly recalls the masterly way in which Karanka ensured there was no chance of a hangover from such a crushing defeat.
“Losing the play-off final was horrible,” said Forshaw. “But we followed that by going up automatically. That was down to the manager.
“I remember him coming in the dressing room after Wembley.
“He told us all that he loved the group – and that we would go one better next year.
“We came back, there was no hangover and we went from strength to strength. Credit to (Boro chairman) Steve Gibson, he backed the manager and recruited really well. That meant we got our rewards at the end of the season.”
Karanka’s bow in English football came at Elland Road. He is, however, still waiting for his first victory at United’s home. The best the Spaniard has managed in LS11 is a goalless draw, his other two visits at the helm of Boro having ended in defeat.
Nevertheless, in-form Forest represent a real threat to the Championship leaders in today’s tea-time kick-off.
“He has his teams really organised,” added Forshaw. “He tries to control the play as well as we do so I think it will set up for a good game.
“They have got some good players but we are just focusing on ourselves. If we are to go up and if we are good enough then we just have to worry about ourselves. The performances will then take care of themselves.”
Leeds’s return to winning ways in midweek against Ipswich was timely. Defeat at Blackburn Rovers a week ago had left Marcelo Bielsa bemoaning a “lost opportunity” in the quest for promotion.
Forshaw would have been able to empathise, having suffered his own frustrations when missing the opening six weeks of the season through injury.
He is now back to full fitness and has come off the bench in seven of the last eight games. As with Boro’s ultimately successful promotion push in 2016, Forshaw is determined to play a major role.
“I wouldn’t say the Championship is wide open,” he added. “It is tight but not wide open. There isn’t a massive standout team, as yet. We were probably it for the first six or seven games. I was out injured so watched from the sidelines.
“That was frustrating but the football was great. I wanted to be part of it. Pure entertainment, that is what it was. A joy to watch.
“Any team that plays on the front foot and with high energy, that excites you. It excites me, anyway. Got me off my seat.
“Then, though, we had a slight dip and weren’t really in the best moment. But beating Ipswich is a good step back in that direction and we want to finish this little block of games going into the international break strongly.”
As for the future and a possible return to the Premier League, where he started 30 of Boro’s 38 games in 2016-17, Forshaw added: “This does feel to be a club on the up. There is an excitement factor about the place with the way we are playing and that sort of thing.
“The manager wants us to play a certain way and the message he wants to get across is something people are enjoying.
“Potentially, this is huge. You only have to look at the crowds we get week after week. Look at Forest, I am told we are expecting another massive crowd.”