“IN SPAIN, we have a saying that you build a house from the floor.”
That pearl of wisdom was uttered by Aitor Karanka at the start of last season when reflecting upon his first task upon getting to work as Middlesbrough head coach in November, 2013 – namely establishing firm defensive foundations.
Just over a century of league games on from his arrival, Boro’s back-four base is made of something resembling reinforced concrete.
The numbers bear this out, with Boro not shipping a goal in 52 of Karanka’s 102 Championship matches in charge.
His side are now on the verge of establishing a Football League all-time record.
Tuesday night’s 1-0 victory at Brentford was Boro’s ninth consecutive clean sheet, equalling the record number of successive league shut-outs recorded by a second tier side.
The feat was previously achieved by Charlton Athletic (1997-98), Leeds United (1927-28) and Chelsea (1905-06).
If Boro do not concede in today’s game at managerless Bristol City – taking their incredible run to 10 matches – they will establish a new record at this level.
That would put them within one clean sheet of joining an exclusive club containing three sides who share the Football League record of 11 shut-outs in a row – including York City’s class of 1973-74, managed by Tom Johnston.
The other two clubs were Millwall (1925-26) and Reading (1978-79).
All told, Boro have not conceded a league goal in a staggering 817 minutes – 13 hours and 37 minutes – since Tom Huddlestone’s sweet stoppage-time strike against them in Hull City’s 3-0 victory at the KC Stadium on November 7, exactly 10 weeks ago today.
That statistic may be remarkable, but for those who have charted Karanka’s restoration job at Boro, it is not a total surprise.
Karanka’s quote about the importance of defensive structure was borne partly out of inherent belief in the importance of not conceding – ingrained in the DNA of someone who represented Real Madrid with distinction at centre-half in the noughties.
It also came out of necessity due to Boro’s brittle tendencies under predecessor Tony Mowbray.
Endless repetition of defensive drills at Boro’s Rockliffe Park training base soon ensued – with early fruits of Karanka’s labours seeing his side record seven straight Championship clean sheets at the Riverside from December, 2013 to March, 2014.
Things were ramped up last season when Boro kept 21 clean sheets and boasted the second-tier’s meanest defence, conceding 37 goals in 46 league games.
But their feats in 2015-16 are threatening to take things into a different stratosphere.
Already heading into Saturday’s game at Ashton Gate, Boro have achieved a unique first at this level, with no other second-tier side having recorded 16 shut-outs in their opening 25 league fixtures.
On home soil, Boro have also been setting particular noteworthy precedents to help turn the Riverside into one of the most forbidding of citadels – they have not conceded in the league there since September 15.
A late Christmas present was provided in their 1-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday on December 28 when they equalled a club record of eight straight shut-outs in the league at home.
It matched that set by the ‘Boro babes’ of Bruce Rioch in 1986-87. His rearguard included two future full England internationals in Gary Pallister and Colin Cooper and a B cap in Mowbray.
That also equalled a record seventh successive league clean sheet, again set under Rioch, in 1987-88 before history was made in the following Riverside game with Derby County on January 2.
Boro surpassed their previous record of 702 minutes without leaking a league goal and secured a ninth unblemished game at home as Dimi Konstantopoulos entered club folklore alongside late 80s goalkeeper Stephen Pears.
Now for the overall second-tier record and Football League one.
National scribes may have famously labelled Jack Charlton’s side as ‘Boring Boro’ in the 70s. But as managers will vouch, there is nothing remotely boring about keeping lean sheets.
Steve Cotterill was sacked by Bristol following a seven-match winless run so assistant John Pemberton and Under-21 chief Wade Elliott take charge on Saturday.