AITOR KARANKA begins his first full season as Middlesbrough’s head coach this afternoon – and the Spaniard accepts full responsibility for whatever happens over the course of the next nine months.
Having spent the vast majority of last season in the bottom half of the Championship table, Boro eventually finished 12th, but Karanka was spared any serious criticism as he only replaced Tony Mowbray in November and was unable to make too many alterations during the January transfer window.
He now has a full pre-season programme under his belt, and has seen five of his leading summer targets arrive at the Riverside, with a further three or four additions expected before the transfer window closes at the end of the month.
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He freely admits this is now ‘his side’, and while he accepts securing promotion will be difficult in a league as tough and competitive as the Championship, he is happy to take the credit or criticism for everything that happens from now on.
“We are in a much better place now that when I arrived, although I can’t really put a percentage on how much we have improved,” said Karanka, ahead of this afternoon’s opening-day game with Birmingham City. “But now this definitely feels like it is my team and my squad.
“If it goes wrong, of course it is my responsibility. There are no excuses because I am responsible for these players. Jose (Mourinho) always says that when a team is winning, everyone says it is because they have good players. But when they lose, it is because the coach is rubbish.
“Today, I believe we can finish in the top two, but it is a very difficult league and I don’t want to say we will definitely do it because we could lose our first two games and be sat here talking about relegation positions. The first few results will give us a fair idea.”
Last season, those first few results were extremely disappointing, with Boro winning just one of their opening ten league games, a sequence that ultimately left them far too much to do as they improved in the second half of the campaign.
This time around, Karanka is determined to hit the ground running, and having been pleased with his side’s pre-season performances, the former Real Madrid assistant is confident they are ready to do themselves justice this afternoon.
On paper, Boro have a reasonably appealing start, with none of their first six opponents featuring in the top ten of the bookmakers’ lists of pre-season favourites.
However, as Karanka quickly discovered last season, reputations mean little in the Championship, with pre-season predictions often looking ridiculous within the first few games.
When pressed to identify the teams to be most scared of, Karanka immediately went for the three relegated sides from last season (Fulham, Cardiff City and Norwich) and the team that missed out on the Premier League in May’s play-off final (Derby County).
However, with Burnley having been promoted last season despite having one of the smallest budgets in the league, the Boro boss accepts it would be foolish to underestimate anyone.
“I have been here for eight months now, so I already know the Championship will be very difficult,” he said. “Every year the teams that come down get stronger, and of the 24 teams in the league, you always have 22 that are very hard.
“When it comes to the main threat, you obviously have to look at the three who were relegated last season. They will be strong, and there’s also Derby and Wigan, but there will be others as well.
“We just have to think about ourselves. If we play and work in the way we know we can, we can beat anybody. I am an ambitious person and I demand a lot from myself - and I want the same from my players.
“We have a better squad (than last season), and can get a good position. We have better players, and they all know me a lot better now, but the most important thing is that it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
“We are going to have good moments, medium moments and bad moments, but when things are not good, we have to stay strong and together.”
Karanka has some key selection decisions to make this afternoon, and having started last weekend’s friendly against Villarreal, it will be interesting to see whether Tomas Mejias gets the nod ahead of Dimi Konstantopoulos in goal.
Kenneth Omeruo might well have to play at right-back in the absence of an experienced alternative, while Adam Reach’s strong pre-season displays might well have earned him a place in the starting XI.
“It’s an exciting time,” said Karanka. “When we came back to work six weeks ago, this was the day we were all working towards and looking forward to. If you’re involved in football, you always get excited by the first day.”