It feels like only yesterday when back in May, Dimi picked the ball out the air from a hopeful long punt from Brighton’s Bruno in the dying embers of what had been perhaps one of the most emotionally draining games I have ever cared to witness live.
The town, the fans and the players erupted with a sense of collective pride (following several tough years on and off the pitch) at what had just been achieved and swathes of jubilant supporters lofted their heroes high above of a sea of red - sights that will live long in the memory on Teeside.
Aitor Karanka upon hearing the final whistle, turned and blew a kiss to the upper stand where Gibson was sitting teary eyed with a look of relief washed over him. It marked over two years of hard work, near misses and turmoil, it all could’ve all been so different.
The fans love for Karanka is undeniable and he really has galvanised a team (and area) in need of a lift, and put together a team that the town can finally begin to be proud of. For some, he frustrates with his seemingly cautious approach and knack of dropping players such as Dimi rather ruthlessly. There’s no denying that before he came in, there seemed to be a lack of professional pride from the players and standards had fallen way beyond what the Chairman, Stadium and facilities deserved.
So ahead of this important milestone, let’s take a look back at the most important games Aitor’s career.
Boro 1 - Bolton 0
Greeted by a very Basque display with a whole hoard of “Karanka-cheifs”, Boro put on a display that showed off some of the Spainard’s emphasis in training on shape and discipline. Steele after his calamitous showing at Elland Road the week before was suspended but Boro pulled a “rabbit out of a hat” style transfer coup with 37 year old Shay Given joining on loan.
Boro looked well drilled but huffed and puffed a little in front of goal with Emnes and Main spurning good opportunities, until the dying embers when Emnes was brought down in the box which Leadbitter duly slotted home the resulting penalty. Moments later, Bolton had a penalty of their own but Beckford lost his nerve and blazed over the bar. An important first win and set Boro on the road to recovery under Aitor.
Boro 0 - Norwich 2
Since the early days of Karanka’s reign, Boro had come on leaps and bounds under Karanka. Many fancied Boro to go on a play-off push having built a reputation for becoming one of the leagues meanest defences with the blossoming partnership of Ayala and the ever-improving Gibson whilst adding the likes of Vossen, Bamford, Tomlin to their ranks.
After sweeping aside a talented Brentford side 5-1 on aggregate, Wembley awaited against a team which Boro had beaten twice domestically, what could go wrong? Well, just about everything really...
After being caught in traffic on the way to Wembley Stadium, Boro from the kick off never got to grips with an energetic and determined Canaries side. Jerome firing home a sloppy first then Redmond capitalising on a shell-shocked Boro for a second.
In the wake of the defeat and after an gruelling Championship season, there was an air of reflection from the players, Gibson and most importantly Karanka. Lessons learnt to great effect.
Boro 1 - Hull 0
Boro were on the cusp of total implosion on and off the pitch. Firstly, there was the infamous spat between Karanka and the players, followed by a 2-0 defeat to an incredibly poor Charlton side at The Valley. Many questioned whether this was the end of the road for Aitor, was too much damage done?
Karanka after several rounds of talks with Steve Gibson and the players was reinstated for the crucial match against Hull City, a game that could decide the destiny for the rest of the season.
A tense game followed, but a last gasp David Nugent header saw Boro get back on track and it was all smiles again, but many questioned if Karanka’s position was still untenable. These suggestions were swiftly quashed in the weeks to come as Boro went on a five game winning streak, not bad for someone who’d apparently lost the dressing room.
Boro 1 - Brighton 1
Like a classic spaghetti Western, this was the mother of all shoot outs with a record amount of money available for the winner. The Riverside was rocking with flag displays everywhere and the stadium was awash with red and white. After suffering play off final heartbreak the season before, Boro came out firing and motivated from the off and took the lead off a clever set piece finished by Stuani.
Ten men Brighton ensured a nervy finish thirty minutes from time after Stephens scored from an carbon copy set piece, but Middlesbrough held on to clinch promotion.
It was an immense achievement and Karanka rightly deserved an enormous amount of praise for amending his mistakes and getting a fragmented group back on the right path.
Arsenal 0 - Boro 0
Whilst perhaps a 0-0 draw may at first glance be a slightly uneventful game to pick, I felt the game was a real turning point for the club, players and Karanka.
Boro against Spurs, Everton and Crystal Palace had looked incredibly porous (even managing to make Seamus Coleman look like Messi) and a far sight from their defensive durability in the Championship. Then there was the disappointing loss to a Watford side that rarely threatened, questions were being asked of Karanka’s tactical flexibility amongst the murmurings of discontent.
But, Boro put on a tactical masterclass against an Arsenal side that was flying in the league. A new shape and the introduction of the jet-propelled Adama caused havoc at the Emirates and without the quality of Petr Cech in goal, Arsenal would’ve undoubtedly lost the game.
So, there we have it! Another tough test tomorrow with red-hot Chelsea visiting at 4pm tomorrow. Let’s hope for a bouncing Riverside tomorrow and UTB!