THE last ten minutes of the Reading game, and as Middlesbrough’s players desperately try to cling on to the 1-0 advantage they have secured through a Marvin Johnson free-kick, it is a case of all hands to the pump.

Ryan Shotton and Dael Fry throw themselves in front of opposition shots. Adam Clayton camps himself in his own 18-yard box to hack the ball clear. Darren Randolph makes three sensational late saves to prevent Reading hauling themselves level.

It is dramatic, last-ditch stuff, and for all that Jonathan Woodgate might want his side to play attractive, expansive football, as a former centre-half, the Middlesbrough head coach can take pride in his players’ commitment and resolve. So much so, in fact, that he came over all David Attenborough when looking back on the drama.

“Sometimes, you have to be like the animal that has the prey,” said Woodgate. “When you’ve got that prey, you have to make sure the other animals don’t get it off you. It’s like when a pack of hyenas don’t get the meat off the lion, the lion protects it.”

There have been times over the last few years when Middlesbrough’s players have been more pussy cats than lions, but as well as trying to introduce a new playing style, Woodgate is trying to engender a sense of solidarity and camaraderie within his youthful squad that ensures they look out for each other with a pack mentality.

It hasn’t always produced the desired results – Boro were unable to hold on to the one-goal lead they established against Millwall in the face of some desperate late pressure – but having battled their way to a 2-2 draw at Bristol City prior to the international break, there was much to admire in the spirit and fight that repelled Reading at the weekend.

There is every chance more of the same will be required when Woodgate takes his squad to Cardiff City this afternoon, with their Welsh opponents hardly shrinking violets under the tutelage of Neil Warnock. After last week, though, the Boro boss knows his players are capable of standing up to whatever comes their way.

“The games are not always going to be pretty,” said Woodgate. “It is going to be ugly at times and you have to learn to win ugly.

“In a perfect world, you’d go out there and play really well and hammer teams, but football isn’t a perfect world and it isn’t always going to be like that.

“I do want to play in a certain way, and in times in games we have done that. At times against Reading we did it, when we were breaking with speed and getting behind them.

“But, for me, the most positive thing about the Reading game was the way we dug in and rolled our sleeves up for that last ten minutes or so.

“Cardiff is a tough place to go, really tough, so we will need to roll our sleeves up and really dig in again. We will have to show determination to really want to defend, and not just the back four, but defending from the front, pressing from the front and midfield, and then that should make it easier for the back four.”

In Warnock, Woodgate will be taking on an adversary who could hardly be further removed in terms of his position on his career trajectory. Woodgate has taken charge of seven league games; Warnock has overseen more than 1,500.

He might not be to everyone’s taste, but his pedigree at Championship level in particular is unarguable and Woodgate has a deep respect for everything he has achieved in the dug-out.

“He’s had eight promotions, which is an incredible record,” he said. “To be in the game for that amount of time is huge, huge credit to him. He’s brought huge success to the teams that he’s been at – kept teams up, got teams promoted. He says it’s apparently going to be his last year, but if they get promoted, I can’t see it being his final season.

“It’ll be good to pit my wits against him. He’s a really experienced manager, and I’ve met him a couple of times before and he seems a really decent fella.”

Cardiff’s starting line-up is likely to feature former Boro defender Aden Flint, as well as Robert Glatzel, who scored a pre-season hat-trick against the Teessiders for German side Heidenheim.

Middlesbrough (probable, 4-1-4-1): Randolph; Dijksteel, Fry, Shotton, Bola; Clayton; Johnson, Wing, McNair, Fletcher; Assombalonga.