WITH five wins and a draw from their last six league games, Middlesbrough are turning their season around. From nervously staring over their shoulders at the relegation zone less than a month ago, the Teessiders suddenly find themselves just three places off the play-offs, but how has such a sudden transformation occurred?
Is it the influence of manager Aitor Karanka? Has an improved defence provided a platform for the rest of the team to build from? Have Boro stumbled across a tactical formation that is ideally suited to the Championship?
All three are viable explanations, but speak to various members of the Middlesbrough squad, and a rather more unexpected explanation emerges. A hamster called Holly.
Presented to George Friend as a 'Secret Santa' offering before Christmas, Holly has been resident at Rockliffe Park ever since. Fed, watered and cared for by the players, her presence has coincided with comfortably the club's best run of the campaign.
There are plans for a new cage to keep her in, but perhaps things should not stop there. Continue to be a good luck charm between now and the end of the season, and Holly might need her own squad number, not to mention a promotion bonus bag of carrots.
“It's called Holly, and it's a team effort to look after it,” said goalkeeper Shay Given. “It seems to be our lucky mascot at the moment. It came into the training ground over Christmas as a bit of a joke from one of the lads, but we're unbeaten since so we're all taking looking after it very seriously now.
“It's got a nice home in there, and we're making sure we feed and water it every day. It's unbeaten so far, so we'll keep it going and make sure it's happy and working its magic.”
While no one is decrying the influence of Boro's resident rodent, if Given is really searching for an explanation as to why the Teessiders have suddenly shot up the table, perhaps he should start by looking at himself.
With five clean sheets from their last six league outings, Boro boast the best defensive record in the division since mid-December, a stark contrast to the early stages of the campaign when they seemed to be shipping goals left, right and centre.
The emergence of a relatively settled back four has helped, as has the decision to switch Rhys Williams back to centre-half, but it is the loan signing of the experienced Given that has done most to transform Boro's previously desultory defending.
Composed, authoritative and technically excellent, the 37-year-old has rolled back the years to reprise the kind of form he regularly displayed when he was in his pomp at Newcastle United. Yet even when he was strutting his stuff in the Champions League with the Magpies, it is hard to imagine him producing a better save than the one that climaxed Saturday's victory.
Leading through Emmanuel Ledesma's first-half strike, relieved when Simon Church had an effort rightly disallowed for a push, and up against ten men following the late dismissal of Rhoys Wiggins, Boro were betraying their traditional signs of panic when a stoppage-time ball was slung into the box.
A half-clearance fell at the feet of Dale Stephens, who drilled what appeared to be a certain goal. Given, out of position after scrambling for the initial cross, looked to have no chance, but he flung himself to the floor to stop the shot, and somehow clung on to prevent the ball spilling to a Charlton attacker.
Roy Keane, who had been at the game in his new role at the Republic of Ireland's number two, missed it as he had already left. The camera man for the BBC's Football League Show must have missed it too given that the incident was inexplicably omitted from Saturday's highlights reel. But the thousands of Boro fans who chanted Given's name long after the final whistle knew they had seen something special.
“Shay contributed 100 per cent to this win,” said Karanka. “He's a great character to have around. It's not good for my nerves going into the closing stages of games just one goal ahead, but Shay showed his importance with that brilliant late save.
“I've only worked with him for a couple of months, but he's shown what a good keeper he is. Someone told me that Roy Keane was here and, for me, Shay's still more than good enough to play for the Republic of Ireland. Anyone would want him in their team, and he seems to improve with age.”
Boro striker Curtis Main rides a challenge for Charlton's Michael Morrison
He has certainly impressed during his ten games in a Boro shirt, although the overall defensive improvement is clearly down to more than just the goalkeeper.
Williams' repositioning has been equally significant in the last two matches, as has the performance of Jozsef Varga at right-back, with the Hungarian providing the kind of security and reliability that was lacking when others were tried in the role.
Grant Leadbitter's screening duties in front of the back four have also helped boost Boro's resilience, and while Saturday's success was a scrappy one, there is no disgrace in that.
“We didn't play well, or in the way I like,” said Karanka. “There were things I wasn't happy with, but it's a clean sheet and this was probably a game we wouldn't have won earlier in the season.”
The challenge now is to add some attacking fluidity to the mix. Ledesma's winner was a carbon copy of his Boxing Day strike against Burnley, with a long-range shot skidding off the turf to avoid the dive of the opposition goalkeeper, but with Curtis Main again failing to fire, the need for a new centre-forward this month is obvious.
“I don't think we played well, but it's important we continue to grind out the results,” said Given. “We're up to ninth now and things are starting to look different.”