MIDDLESBROUGH’S trip to Oakwell in October proved to be the tipping point for chairman Steve Gibson. Despite two late goals from Albert Adomah, Gibson’s mind had seemingly already been made up after witnessing struggling Barnsley charge in to a three-goal first half lead.
A couple of days later, Tony Mowbray had been sacked. It was time for the Teesside man the fans had all wanted so badly to succeed to depart and join Gareth Southgate and Gordon Strachan in the list of established names to have been unable to lead Boro back to the Premier League.
Something new, in the eyes of Gibson, was required. Rather than turn in the direction of a name more familiar with the Football League, or even just the English game, he opted for something different and a change of direction.
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The call was made to Spain. Aitor Karanka, the former number two of Jose Mourinho, was the next man to be installed at the Riverside Stadium – and he has enjoyed relative success in his first six months in charge.
Karanka has, ultimately, come up short in his initial hopes of pushing Middlesbrough in to a play-off spot. Yet few will seriously have expected him to have delivered such a scenario when he agreed to succeed Mowbray back in November.
That earlier meeting with Barnsley is one of the reasons why. For 45 minutes in South Yorkshire on October 19, Middlesbrough looked deflated, defeated and lost. Mowbray, for all his good work in reducing the wage bill and overseeing huge changes during his time in charge, had lost his way.
The club’s former captain always remained well liked within the Middlesbrough dressing room, however, and the sacking of Mowbray could actually be in the back of the players’ minds ahead of today’s game with the Tykes at the Riverside Stadium today.
“Perhaps we should take strength from the fact Barnsley were the opponents when Tony sadly lost his job,” said defender George Friend. “Hopefully that can give us the determination to beat them now and give them a big thumping to end the season.
“We should be beating teams like that. It was a shame in the manner we lost down at Barnsley. Everyone expected us to beat them. We have played worse this season against the lower teams and got something. We didn’t that day. I can’t explain it. We have to start winning games like that if we are going to be in the promotion mix next season.”
While there was a sense of impending doom and inevitability surrounding the final weeks of Mowbray’s reign after winning just two of the first 13 matches of the season, Karanka’s arrival has led to improvements.
Friend said: “We have been better at the back, until the last two games when we have conceded four against Millwall and Reading!
“We have kept a lot of clean sheets this season. We have improved at home even if we have struggled a bit away. For some reason, that needs sorting. Aitor has been fantastic. There are a lot of players in the changing room with the same view about his methods.”
Karanka’s approach was topical because of the way in which the Spaniard was critical of himself in the wake of Tuesday’s defeat at Reading. The former Spain Under-17s coach claimed he had failed to motivate his players at the Madejski Stadium.
Friend said: “Every player has to look at themselves regardless of what the manager said after the Reading game. I am very disappointed in me personally and the team as a whole in the way we played there because we didn’t get the result we wanted. It takes a bit of strength for the manager to say what he did. Obviously he is sticking up for the lads and that’s a positive thing to see.”
Whoever was to blame, the reality is that back-to-back defeats cost Middlesbrough a chance of sneaking in to the play-off places in the last week of the season. The bigger picture is that they had also stuttered similarly when they had a brilliant run of form either side of Christmas.
Friend said: “We have to get through the hard bits. When a team scraps against us, we have to remain confident and keep playing football. We have got the players so we should be out beating the Millwalls, matching Reading and we should be beating Barnsley. That’s what we need because it would set us up for a good summer.”
Given that today’s visit of Barnsley will be Middlesbrough’s final home game of the season, Friend also believes it is important for the supporters who turn up to see one last victory.
He said: “The last home game is the one that sticks in the memory of the fans. They are all important when points are at stake. I hope we get a reaction after the Millwall and Reading games. We have only got our pride and fans to play for now. If we don’t then we will be letting everyone down.”