JONATHAN WOODGATE has worked with some world-class goalkeepers during his career. From Iker Casillas at Real Madrid to Shay Given at Newcastle United, Nigel Martyn and Paul Robinson during his time at Leeds United to David Seaman in his appearances for England, the Middlesbrough head coach has been privileged to rub shoulders with some top goalkeeping talent.

He knows what it takes to succeed between the sticks, so while he inherited plenty of problems that required a solution when he agreed to take over at the Riverside this summer, one issue did not need a second thought.

Last season, Darren Randolph was voted the best goalkeeper in the Championship. We are only just over a month into the current campaign, but he already looks nailed on to retain his crown.

He was the key to Middlesbrough’s second success of the season at the weekend, making three sensational stops in the final ten minutes alone to prevent Reading claiming an equaliser, and continues to look thoroughly out of place in the second tier.

Garry Monk is rightly accused of scuppering Boro’s best chance of returning to the Premier League through a series of ill-advised buys that resulted in the squandering of the club’s parachute payments, but the £5m he paid West Ham for Randolph is the best bit of business conducted by a Middlesbrough manager for quite some years. Even now, more than two years on, Woodgate continues to reap the rewards.

“Darren is the best keeper in the league,” said the Boro boss. “He did what you saw against Reading so many times last season, and he continues to do it. He made one save in particular that was outstanding.

“You need a keeper like Darren, but it is not just his saves, he is a calming influence within the squad as one of the elder statesmen, that is why he is a top keeper and why he is Ireland’s number one.

“It’s impossible to put him in any bracket and compare him because I played with some really top goalkeepers, but Darren is the best keeper in this league and is really top class.

“Keepers can play until they are 40, so he could keep going for another ten years. He was top drawer last season and the year before.

“When you look at a goalkeeper what do you look for? Can he make big saves? Yes. Is he consistent? Yes. They are the two biggest things in a goalie. If he can play with his feet it’s a bonus. He commands his area and he talks a lot more to his team and he is just getting better. I am really pleased with him.”

His team-mates are equally enamoured, as evidenced by the euphoric reaction that followed the pick of Randolph’s weekend saves.

The 32-year-old had already made crucial late stops to deny John Swift and Lucas Joao when Reading centre-half Liam Moore met an 89th-minute cross with a header that looked certain to loop into the far corner. It was hard to see any way that Randolph could stop it, yet leaping across his line, the Irishman somehow got his fingertips to the ball and clawed it around the post for a corner. Within seconds, he was engulfed by his team-mates, with the congratulations continuing long after the final whistle.

“Everybody was kissing Darren on the head in the changing room after the final whistle because we know how important he is,” said Ryan Shotton. “You can talk about us as defenders, or the attackers working hard to help out the defence, but your goalkeeper is going to be needed eventually, and whenever he’s called upon, he comes up with the goods.

“He’s the best I’ve ever played with, simple as that. No disrespect to the other players I’ve played with, I’ve had some good goalkeepers in my time, but for me, he’s the number one. The saves he pulls off, I’m just left thinking, ‘How have you done that?’

“Some of his saves are unbelievable. That one he clawed around the post right at the end, I don’t even think he knows how he saved that one. He just stuck his hand out, but he had a strong enough hand to turn the ball around for a corner. It was just ridiculous, and everyone got around him straight away because they knew how good a save it was and they know how important he is.”

The modern trend might be for goalkeepers to act as auxiliary centre-halves, but their bread and butter will always be shot-stopping, and when it comes to that facet of the game, Randolph is as good as they come.

His reflexes remain razor-sharp, and given the consistency of his performances last season, it was something of a surprise when no one came in for his services this summer. Middlesbrough would not want to lose him, but despite having turned 32 in May, he is surely capable of playing in the Premier League for the next few seasons. With less than two years remaining on his contract, the Teessiders could find themselves in a difficult position next summer if they are unable to win promotion.

Is a top-six finish a realistic ambition? It remains unlikely given the lack of depth in Middlesbrough’s squad, but Saturday’s victory extended the current unbeaten run to four matches and lifted Woodgate’s side to within four points of a play-off place.

The early signs remain promising, with Woodgate’s desire to press high up the field and raise the tempo of his team’s play bearing fruit. Boro played with energy and purpose against a Reading side who have benefited from significant summer investment, and while they were indebted to Randolph’s brilliance late on, the quality of their second-half performance in particular just about merited all three points.

Paddy McNair was the pick of their outfield players once again, as he has been for the vast majority of the season, with his driving runs from midfield troubling the Reading defence and creating space for his team-mates to exploit.

The Northern Irishman came close with a first-half shot that was saved by Rafael Cabral, and was involved in the move that resulted in Michael Morrison conceding a 60th-minute free-kick close to the touchline. Marvin Johnson whipped the ball in from the flank, and while Ashley Fletcher failed to make contact as he lunged in the six-yard box, he unsighted Cabral, resulting in Johnson’s cross creeping into the corner of the net.

It was backs-to-the-wall stuff after that, but with Shotton and Dael Fry holding things together manfully at the heart of a remodelled back five, Boro held firm.

“I think we’re start to build something now,” said Shotton. “We’ve had the performances in most games, it’s just that bit of luck or not doing the right things in the right areas, but here we made sure we did everything right, and it showed.

“It’s a bit of organisation from everyone as a collective to make sure that if we go 1-0 up, we make sure we don’t concede a goal. This was a prime example of that.

“The defending has to start from the front. They have to have the energy to go forward and make sure that when the opposition have the ball, we’re in the right areas to press. If we’re not in the right areas, we get the ball popped around us, and sometimes you’ve maybe seen that. But if we’re organised and ready to go, then teams in the Championship will not be able to get out. You could see that. We pressed them and won the ball in the right areas It’s a good positive to build on.”