How Aitor Karanka has played his cards right to put Middlesbrough in a position to hit the jackpot
Middlesbrough should be applauded for striking upon the perfect approach to tackling a Championship campaign.
They are playing the game, and playing it well.
With an ambitious young manager at the helm in the form of Aitor Karanka - a man with a useful contact book – Teesside is daring to dream that Premier League football could soon be returning to the Riverside Stadium.
Football betting for the second tier has the Boro at evens to secure promotion, the kind of odds few supporters could have predicted upon seeing their side lost in mid-table mediocrity in 2013/14.
This has, however, been the year in which Karanka has been able to get his claws stuck into the club and start to mould it as he sees fit.
Yes, he has leant heavily on the loan market, but why not? When Jose Mourinho is a close personal friend, with the pair having previously worked together at Real Madrid, why would you not have his number on speed dial?
Karanka has certainly been keeping his Portuguese colleague busy over the last few months, with two Chelsea players on his books, a third on the way and a fourth recently returned to Stamford Bridge. Jamal Blackman has been recalled to the capital, but Kenneth Omeruo remains in the North East and highly-rated defender Tomas Kalas is poised to join on loan for the remainder of the campaign.
Mourinho has also agreed to let Patrick Bamford – a man who helped to fire Derby County to within 90 minutes of the top flight last term see out the season with Middlesbrough.
That could prove to be Karanka’s most important piece of business, regardless of whatever else he achieves in January.
There will be some who argue that the Boro have placed too many of their eggs in a loan-shaped basket, with such an approach likely to deliver short-term benefits but lacking in long-term vision. This, though, is a pointless argument and one often used out of spite by those who have seen their chosen troops fail to deliver similar rewards.
It is all well and good asking, ‘What will they do if they reach the Premier League?’, but that is missing the point. Before you start worrying about how you are going to tackle life among the elite, try worrying about getting there first. Once that step is taken, then thoughts can turn to another recruitment drive.
After all, Karanka has worked hard to bring in players that can do a job for Middlesbrough at the level they are at currently, not those who could deliver next season or five years down the line.
He has blended youth with experience and brought the best of players that may feel they have points to prove for different reasons – be that catching the eye of others or showing that they are no spent force.
The Boro have also avoided investing heavily and will therefore have more in reserve should they clamber back onto the top rung of the ladder - with owner Steve Gibson having never shied away from backing a manager when funds are required. He will be among those delighted to have seen a few calculated risks pay off over the course of the past 14 months.
Karanka has proved to be an astute appointment and those players at his disposal have positioned themselves within five points of the Championship summit as 4/1 shots to end a six-year absence from the top tier as winners of a fiercely competitive and notoriously difficult division to negotiate.