Full-time: Middlesbrough 2 Ipswich Town 0
NINE years after hitting his first league goal in a Middlesbrough shirt, Danny Graham arrived right on cue to grab his second – only this time he will remember it.
At the opposite end to where he was knocked unconscious by the boot of Chris Perry in February 2005 after stooping to head an equaliser over Charlton goalkeeper Dean Kiely, Graham popped up in the box again to put Boro on the way to ending a run of seven matches without a win.
Loading article content
After five matches without a goal since arriving on loan from Sunderland in January, the 28-year-old pounced to drive the opening goal over the line in the 29th minute after Mustapha Carayol's initial effort had been parried.
While Graham has been full of endeavour and work-rate since returning to the Riverside, he has been going home after matches frustrated that his own personal goal drought was going on and on.
But his first of 2014 was soon followed by a second – a lovely glancing header from Grant Leadbitter's free-kick on the stroke of half-time – and it left his manager, Aitor Karanka, reflecting that he looked a 'Premier League striker'.
And as Graham chatted on the touchline after the 2-0 win over Ipswich Town, the forward had a spring in his step again – knowing how he has struggled to find the net since leaving Swansea City 14 months ago.
“I'm just pleased I can remember it!” said Graham, who went on to have spells with Carlisle, Watford and Swansea before heading to Wearside. “I remember my last one for Middlesbrough was against Charlton, down there at the North Stand. I can't remember the goal. I just remember Chris Moseley, the physio, running to tell me that I had scored.
“That's nine years ago, it sounds like I'm old! I have waited a long time for another one because I have been away. When I came back I wanted to hit the ground running, it has taken seven games, but it is great to get them. Hopefully there will be a lot more before the end of the season.”
The bigger picture is that Middlesbrough won for the first time since January 18 and scored for the first time since then too. Twelve hours and 13 minutes on from Emmanuel Ledesma netting the winner against Charlton that day, Karanka and his team's fans finally had a goal to celebrate.
The relief was evident when Graham converted the opportunity which presented itself just before the half hour and Middlesbrough ended the first half full of confidence.
Graham said: “It was great, it has been a while. To follow it up with a second was superb, but it was also important that the team scored and won to get the monkey off our back.
“When I scored, an easy tap in, it all came back to me. I felt like I gave a good performance, held the ball up, won headers, and tried to get on the end of things. That was the me of old. I just have to try to take that form in to the last 12 games we have.”
While the focus was on whether Graham and Co could end the club's worst barren spell in front of goal ever, it was important there was an effective display defensively.
Karanka's decision to overlook Jason Steele once more meant Dimi Konstantopoulos had the first chance to stake a claim for the goalkeeper shirt with Tomas Mejias ruled out for a month.
Konstantopoulos was rarely put under any serious threat and his only significant save was when he tipped over Christophe Berra's header at the end of the game. Other than that the Middlesbrough defence operated efficiently to constantly thwart anything Ipswich put their way.
Despite the absence of Jonathan Woodgate, Rhys Williams and Daniel Ayala, young pairing Kenneth Omeruo and Ben Gibson highlighted their huge potential with commanding displays at the back.
The defensive performance laid the foundations for the victory, with Carayol justifying his recall to the side at the other end of the pitch to inspire Middlesbrough to defeat the Tractor Boys.
Carayol had been criticised by Karanka following the defeat to Watford on February 15 for an apparent 'attitude' problem but the winger was full of purposeful running to cause havoc to Ipswich skipper Luke Chambers.
It was from one of the former Bristol Rovers man's many runs which created Graham's first. The striker's second, a fine header from Grant Leadbitter's corner, sealed the points before half-time.
Ipswich never got going and, despite a largely uneventful second half, Middlesbrough got the win which closed the gap to the top six to nine points with 12 matches remaining.
“We have to believe,” said Graham, whose only goal this season arrived at Swansea for Hull in December. “There's no point going in to games thinking there's nothing to play for. While it is mathematically possible we will give the play-offs a good go. I'm just pleased I got the goals to get us up and running again.
“I went home with my head held high on Saturday night. 2013 was horrific, but 2014 will hopefully be a better year and positive year.
“It has been a nightmare going home and not scoring especially after the year I had. It was tough. The family took the brunt of that, everybody has been supportive and hopefully 2014 will be a good year for myself and for Middlesbrough.”