WHEN the curtain came down on another Championship season at the Riverside on Saturday, there was distinct feeling of unfinished business.
Only a few months ago, Middlesbrough supporters must have been clamouring for the season to end after they had witnessed a third successive goalless draw on Teesside.
Now, though, there is a different atmosphere around the place and a genuine belief that progress is being made under Aitor Karanka.
Of course, it’s typical that the Teessiders are coming into form just as the season draws to a conclusion and there is no hiding from the fact that it has still been a largely disappointing campaign.
There may be talk of what might have been had Boro’s late-season form started a few weeks earlier, but rather than dwell on that, the feeling around the Riverside on Saturday evening quickly turned to what could be.
A 3-1 win courtesy of goals from Danny Graham and Lee Tomlin meant Boro signed off on a positive note in front of their supporters, but it also offered further evidence that they are finding their feet under Karanka’s guidance.
A change in leadership two months into the season was always going to bring a degree of uncertainty and a necessity for patience and while there has been times when it seemed Boro were stuck in reverse, slowly but surely a new philosophy has began to emerge on Teesside.
When Barnsley – who had to win to give themselves any chance of avoiding relegation – took a 53rd minute lead the Riverside was barely able to register their frustration before Tomlin equalised less than a minute later.
In games gone by – last weekend’s 2-1 defeat to Millwall a perfect example – Boro would have left it too late to give themselves a chance, but one thing they have done well under the Spaniard is learn from their mistakes quickly and after most defeats they have responded in a positive manner.
EARLY EXIT: Jonathan Woodgate leaves the field injured in the 40th minute
It is difficult to predict where in the table Middlesbrough will compete next season and whether they can mount a genuine challenge on the top six, but surely they will be better equipped to do so after a full summer under the Karanka’s watch.
A lot will hinge on the squad the Spaniard constructs over the summer, but there appears to be good foundations that Boro will look to build on over the coming months.
In 30 games under the head coach, the Teessiders have lost nine times, kept an impressive 15 clean sheets and look far more difficult to beat than they have done in recent years.
They may have left it late to close their home account with a win when Graham and Tomlin both struck in stoppage time to condemn Danny Wilson’s men to League One football next season, but signing off with a win will play its part in ensuring the bulk of the 15,000 return for another assault on the Championship next season.
“I am delighted because it is the best way to finish the season at home,” Karanka said. “The game wasn’t brilliant but the people wanted a win and for this I am happy.
CLASSY FINISH: Lee Tomlin strokes home his first goal to bring Middlesbrough level with Barnsley
“Since my first day everybody has been incredible for me and it has made it easier to work when the people support you. After each game it has been the same and I would like to say thanks and that I will work everyday to get the best of my players and me.”
After back-to-back defeats ended their hopes of a late play-off push, Karanka wanted an immediate response, but it wasn’t until Jean-Yves M’voto hooked in from Tom Kennedy’s corner eight minutes after the restart that Boro finally sparked into life.
The impressive Luke Steele made several saves to keep the hosts at bay in the first half, but he was finally beaten when Tomlin pounced on a lose ball and skipped a challenge before drilling home.
As the Tykes pushed forward in search of a winner, Boro were able to exploit the space left when Graham and Tomlin finally put the game to bed after two swift counter-attacks.
“I didn’t like the first 25, 30 minutes because we played like we did against Millwall and Reading,” Karanka said. “In the last 15 minutes the team did what I wanted them to.
“We had to deal with injuries and substitutions in the second half and it was a bit crazy, but we beat them in the end.
“We needed to concede a goal to start playing. We need to learn for the future to start the games from the first minute and give 100 per cent.”