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Ledesma hopes to add to Argentinian heritage
IF you're going to be an attacking midfielder from Argentina, then recent footballing history suggests that you'd better be good.
"When I was very young, (Diego) Maradona was still the biggest star in Argentinian football," said Emmanuel Ledesma, who was sitting alongside his team-mate and part-time interpreter, Julio Arca, when we met at Rockliffe Park earlier this week. "Everyone in the country loved him and the whole world admired his talents.
"Then when I was growing up, it was (Juan Roman) Riquelme who I loved to watch. He was one of the main players who made me want to be a footballer. With the position I've always played, he was the person I looked up to."Now, of course, there is (Lionel) Messi. He is Argentina's new hero and it is impossible to watch him without being amazed.
"As a country, we take pride in the fact we have produced some of the world's greatest attacking footballers. Every Argentinian footballer looks up to these players."
Clearly, Ledesma will never be a Maradona or a Messi. But in his five months as a Middlesbrough player, the 24-year-old has shown enough flashes of attacking inspiration to suggest he could become a key figure in the club's attempts to regain their Premier League status.
The Teessiders have established a powerful South American heritage in the last two decades, with the likes of Arca, Juninho, Emerson and Fabio Rochemback all making major contributions and forging a strong relationship with the club's supporters.
Ledesma's positive attacking style has already earned him plenty of praise from the stands, and having initially struggled to force his way into Tony Mowbray's starting line-up, the winger is rapidly proving why the Boro boss was so keen to sign him this summer.
He scored in last month's victories over Charlton and Huddersfield, and has settled into a right-wing role that enables him to cut in from the flank to provide a goal threat.
"It has been a really big change coming to Middlesbrough and a big step up in my football career," said Ledesma. "But in the last five months I think I have been progressing all the time.
"I am fighting to get in the team every week, and in the last few matches I have been able to do that so that really makes me happy.
"I have played quite a lot in the last couple of months and feel comfortable, doing quite well. I just want to carry on with that now and make myself an even more important part of the team."
Integrating into the team environment has been of particular importance to Ledesma given the itinerant nature of his footballing career to date.
Born in Quilmes, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, he emigrated to Europe at the age of 17 and progressed through the youth ranks of Italian side Genoa.
He joined QPR on loan in 2008, scoring a hat-trick against Carlisle United in the League Cup, but returned to Italy for two more loan spells with sides in Serie B.
His release from Genoa preceded an unsuccessful trial with Brighton, but a reserve outing on the south coast alerted scouts from Walsall, and he joined the Midlands club on a short-term contract.
He returned to Argentina after that was up, but returned to play for Walsall in the second half of last season, a spell that witnessed Middlesbrough scouts making regular trips to the Bescot Stadium.
When he made his Boro debut at Bury in the Capital One Cup, he was playing for his eighth different club in the space of four years, so with a three-year contract signed and sealed, it is little wonder he is finally looking forward to some stability.
"I feel very calm now," said Ledesma. "It is nice to have the tranquillity of a three-year contract and that is something I have never really had before.
"There is not the same pressure of feeling like you have to constantly prove yourself all the time."Obviously, there is the pressure of wanting to do well and stay in the team, but that is different to feeling as though you have to stand out every time you go on to the field because you are hoping to earn a contract for the future. In the past, I have generally had two or three months to decide what happens to me next."
At the moment, Ledesma can afford to devote his undivided attention to Boro's promotion push, an ambition that would be aided by a positive result against struggling Peterborough United this afternoon.
"You have to go step by step, but here at the club everyone is wanting to achieve promotion," he said. "There is still half of the season to go so you can't really get excited at the moment. But hopefully we will be pushing to get promotion for the rest of the year."