Middlesbrough v Aston Villa: Tony Pulis clears minds to get the Boro in focus

GIVEN Tony Pulis's previous experience of the play-offs, he would be forgiven for not making any predictions whatsoever.

Middlesbrough's Adama Traore: Needs protection.

The Middlesbrough manager’s status as one of the most qualified and worldly-wise managers around precedes him – so much so that he was famously invited to speak about his managerial experiences to the prestigious Oxford Union last year.

Presidents, Prime Ministers and assorted venerable figures, including Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu and Albert Einstein have all previously addressed students – and while Pulis fielded all manner of questions about the art of football management, providing definitive answers to the secret of play-off success would probably have left him stumped.

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With good reason, with the Welshman’s bitter, unfathomable experiences during his last play-off sortie with Gillingham in 1998-99 showcasing the volatile nature of the end-of-season lottery, which is never quite over until it is over.

Famously, his Gills side were on the cusp of promotion to the second tier after goals inside the final 10 minutes from Carl Asaba and Robert Taylor put the Kent side 2-0 up in the Second Division final with Manchester City – with the finish line not just withing sight, but in finger-tip distance.

But goals from Kevin Horlock and Paul Dickov – with the latter’s equaliser timed at 94 minutes and nine seconds – enabled City to stage a miraculous stoppage-time recovery, the precursor to penalty shoot-out glory.

The above evidence showcased the fact that play-off fates can go right down to the wire, sometimes the last second and last kick and with just one goal scored in two matches between Boro and Villa this term, it will not be lost upon Pulis or a similarly seasoned managerial campaigner in Steve Bruce that this particular tie has the potential to be decided by one moment.

Pulis, whose side contains several survivors from Boro’s run to the Championship play-off final in May, 2015 in Ben Gibson, Daniel Ayala, George Friend and Adam Clayton – while Jonny Howson was on the winning side that day for Norwich – said: “We have got to give it our best shot. It is over two games, not just one and we have got to understand that.

“It will be difficult. I have got great respect for Steve and Villa are a massive club. They have got one of the strongest, if not the strongest, squad in the Championship.

“But I am looking forward to it and I think the players are. Every little bit of experience that you have got of playing in these situations helps. But it is always on the day. It is about the players turning up, having the right mindset and really enjoying and embracing it.”

Pulis has certainly provided clarity ahead of today’s early evening encounter by revealing that the same side who lined up at Ipswich Town on the final day of the season at Portman Road on Sunday lunchtime will also start against Villa, who narrowly triumphed 1-0 in the Welshman’s first appointment in charge of the Teessiders on December 30.

It is a clear sign of his faith in his Boro charges, who showed their mettle in winning successive late-season games against top-six rivals Bristol City, Derby County and Millwall, with each occasion possessing a play-off type intensity.

He added: “We have got to a point now where you have got to focus on making sure you do everything you possibly can to clear the minds of the players.

“You do not want them to go out with any inhibitions at all and want them to go out there and really give it their best shot. Not just on the park, but off the park as well and making sure they are really focused.

“My team is the team that I picked for Ipswich. I am not hiding anything. That is my team and that is the way we will go out and play.

“For me, it is probably more difficult to get into my team than out of it – and if you have got the shirt and show effort and commitment, I like to have stable teams and continuity.”

As for the importance of Boro’s form in the run-in against several rivals breathing down their neck as a potential play-off ‘dress rehearsal’, he continued: “We are rolling into this competition in good form and that is brilliant news for everybody.

“The players have been brilliant this week. I know they played a tough game in very tough conditions at Ipswich, but the way they have trained and played this week has been very focused and they have been right on the front foot. We just want the game to start.”

A tasty sub-plot to this evening’s meeting sees form winger Adama Traore, widely perceived to be the biggest reason in Boro’s re-emergence in the second half of 2017-18, do battle with his former employers once again.

A player transformed under Pulis, the 22-year-old will have his own motivations to showcase his improvement against his old club, while banishing memories of his early dismissal in the goalless league fixture at Villa Park.

It was an evening when the speedster lost his discipline and it is something that Villa will be aware of and likely to target.

But Pulis himself is just as anxious that his star turn is afforded protection in today’s high-stakes meeting and also in Birmingham on Tuesday night.

He said: “Adama needs protection in both games, without question of a doubt, because he has been so good in the games leading up to it. We have found early on that he has been targeted, without question of a doubt.

“So we have got to make sure that people are aware of that. But we are looking forward to these games; the whole team and club.”