'The Corridor of Uncertainty'

Craig Hignett – Supporters’ Club Q&A

This is the ‘condensed version’ of what was said by Craig Hignett at Monday night’s Supporters’ Club meeting at the Riverside Stadium. It’s a shame I can’t post the whole thing and all of the detail but I think, in this instance, it’s fair enough to respect the feelings of the people who run the supporters’ club and the work that they do as an organisation. It’s not as if this is a post exposing corruption within the upper echelons of JP Morgan, perhaps, or something that could bring down the North Korean government from the inside, it’s just Higgy talking about the Boro so I’ve agreed to scale it back and do something more general this time around. Hopefully this one will survive the night…

Hignett started off by talking about how the job came about and what it entails, what his role will be alongside Karanka and what the Head Coach expects from him. He will provide something of a buffer between the boss and the players, someone they can go to if they’re not happy with something or need to have a chat somewhere along the line. He said he was immediately impressed by Karanka and talked about how professional he is, also talking about how Karanka has been trying to drum into the players the importance of playing as a team and not a bunch of individuals, which he thought was the case when he first took the job on.

Questions were then asked about the way the team is being set up – Karanka is adamant about the 4-2-3-1 formation and will buy players who fit into that template. Karanka realised very quickly that you need pace and power in this league so that’s why he went out and signed Ayala and Omeruo, to give him the physical presence you need in both boxes. Hignett said he doesn’t think what you do in between the boxes matters too much, you can play it long or play football through it, it doesn’t matter because in this division it’s all about what happens in both boxes and if you take care of that you’ve got a good chance of doing well.

He was asked about Leadbitter’s set-piece delivery, and set-pieces in general, and defended Leadbitter a little bit because he says that some of the players don’t make the runs they’re supposed to make, so if Leadbitter puts the right ball in and nobody moves for it it looks like a bad ball – he also stressed that Karanka sends the front four players out with complete freedom in terms of attacking and playing football but they’ve not been doing it lately and Karanka is incredibly frustrated by it. He was apparently fuming after Bournemouth on Saturday because the players didn’t show enough effort to play and didn’t do what was required of them.

The biggest thing Karanka had to do was instil a proper team spirit into them and get them taking pride in the team and the results instead of focusing on their own jobs so much – he reckons we’ve built a good team ethic now and the players in the side take great pride in keeping the ball out of our net. Ben Gibson was singled out for praise at this point, and complimented on his approach to defending generally. Karanka isn’t satisfied with draws and wants wins because it really matters to him and he is very passionate.

Karanka was annoyed about the number of individual errors that were being made when he first arrived and was surprised at how some of the players didn’t take responsibility for results at that time, so he had to put that right and it took time to do it but now we’ve got a good team spirit going on and everybody is taking pride in the team.

Hignett then talked about the way the team sets up – some supporters had suggested the team was too rigid and that we weren’t getting enough bodies into the box at times, and that the striker was isolated too often. Hignett generally agreed with those comments and said they’re working out how put it right, he reckons Tomlin will be a very important player for us because he is a clever player who can link the play up for us. He was full of praise for Danny Graham and it seemed to be the wide players that are the biggest source of frustration for the coaching-staff because they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing and not taking responsibility. They seem to be trying to work out whether to play Tomlin as an advanced midfielder of whether he should play off the striker, and I think they’ve come down on the side of the latter and we’ll see Tomlin playing pretty high up the pitch.

As for the lack of goals, Hignett says he’s excited about the summer and about what will happen next season – apparently they already have a clear idea of what needs to be done, which positions needs strengthening, who will be leaving the club and who they want to bring in. He said Karanka has drilled into the players that they can’t afford to think that far ahead because some of them might not be at the club if they don’t do their jobs between now and the end of the current season, and he also said that the players have been reminded that supporters have already paid their money for this season so they need to go out and win the eleven remaining games and see what happens after that. He talked a little bit about how much the players earn and said supporters would be shocked by some of the wages, but not in the same way some were when Mowbray arrived, more because some of the wages we pay these days are very low in comparison to the rest of the league.

And that was that really. As I said earlier, it’s a bit of a shame we can’t have the whole thing to read over but I’ve tried to get the general gist of what was said across because Hignett was very honest and provided some good insight into how hard it is to run a football team at the level we’re at. I think there could be some exciting times ahead if we’re patient with things but Hignett wanted to stress that Karanka has not given up on this season and won’t allow the players to give up on it either.

Middlesbrough 1 Nottingham Forest 1

Nottingham Forest at home under the lights is one of those games that still has a certain appeal about it, like playing at home to Liverpool in the eighties perhaps, or Sheffield Wednesday in the early-nineties even, and last night was no different in that respect as I strolled down to the stadium in fairly high spirits after Saturday’s routine victory over Ipswich Town. The signs were good as I settled into my seat and heard that the gaffer had named an unchanged eleven and confidence grew further when I noticed that a thirty-eight year-old Jonathan Greening was going to be playing in the middle of the field for Forest. Surely our lads would have the beating of old man Greening, wouldn’t they?

Those feelings of confidence and optimism lasted for about seven minutes, however, as it became obvious that Forest were very adept at keeping the ball with Greening, 45, being allowed far too much room to play his simple little passes from side-to-side. In fact, Boro started the game in very poor fashion and there was no sign of the pressing game that Karanka favours, no tempo to our play, no urgency about what we were doing and lots of sloppy passing going on, with Omeruo, Chalobah and Leadbitter being particularly wasteful in possession. By the twenty minute mark, Forest were firmly on top of things and Greening, 49, seemed to be enjoying his return to the Riverside as he orchestrated most of their good stuff by way of providing a link between Djamel Abdoun, Jamie Paterson and Marek Majewski across the middle of the pitch. Boro’s best hope of creating something of interest was getting it out to Muzzy Carayol and letting him have a run at their full-back but, as the half wore on, he quietened down and Forest started to work a few chances at goal; Simon Cox’s feeble header from six yards was the best of their chances, with everything else they did being relatively tame and causing Konstantopoulos very little bother.

From our point of view the half petered out, the best we could do was a header from a corner that needed clearing off the line and also a shot from Carayol from outside the box that rolled past Karl Darlow’s right-hand post. We’d resorted to just lumping it in the vague direction of Danny Graham by the end of it and Ledesma couldn’t get into it at all. Losing Lee Tomlin to injury just after half-an-hour didn’t help us, certainly, though he’d barely had a kick before being replaced by Albert Adomah. So it was a very poor forty-five minutes for us and it was clear Karanka would have to get stuck into them at half-time. The way we started the second-half suggested that Karanka had indeed got stuck into them as the defence was pushed much higher up the pitch and the lads, Graham, Leadbitter and Ledesma in particular, began to press Forest and disrupted their rhythm to the point where we actually got on top of them.

Muzzy Carayol broke away down the left and cut inside his man before unleashing a splendid curling effort into the far corner to put us 1-0 up and the lads didn’t stop there, they kept the tempo up and pressed Forest’s centre-halves into playing several aimless balls straight onto Omeruo’s bonce. Dean Whitehead came on for Ledesma and made us more solid in the middle of the pitch, showing exactly why he should always be selected ahead of Nathaniel Chalobah, though it was frustrating to watch Leadbitter trundling around the place trying to play the ‘no.10’ position when he clearly isn’t capable of it. The central cog of Forest’s decent first-half showing, Jonathan Greening, 56, had disappeared from the game and the Boro pushed on for a second, with Carayol breaking away down the left once again only to send the latest effort, which actually looked a little easier than the one he scored from, sailing past Karl Darlow’s left-hand post. Forest then made some changes; barrel-chested play-maker Andy Reid replaced Jamie Paterson and the big daft lump Darius Henderson and that young boy who always scores against the Boro, Matt Derbyshire, came on for Simon Cox and Djamel Abdoun respectively.

Those substitutions brought with them a feeling that it was only a matter of time before Forest would equalise and, for me anyway, it was no surprise to see a goal slide past Konstantopoulos to make it 1-1. The big Greek bloke was furious with Forest’s goal though as I was at the other end of the stadium it was difficult to know exactly what he was so upset about(it’s only when I got home and saw a Vine video of the goal that I realised that we’d been the victims of some appalling cheating on Henderson’s behalf, what with him using his forearm to tuck away a cross into the box). Feeling somewhat aggrieved, the lads tried to rally and find a winner and we almost pinched it via a stabbed effort from Danny Graham that came back off the post. Graham then scuffed a left-footed shot past the post when he perhaps should’ve done better, though a 2-1 win would probably have flattered us really.

A 1-1 draw was probably a fair result and it’s a decent point for us when you take into account the fact that Forest were one of the better teams we’ve seen on Teesside this season and are obviously fifth in the table for a reason. It’s also satisfying to take a point from a game in which we’ve played so poorly for long spells, with the passing from the back alarmingly out-of-sorts and the two central-midfielders, Chalobah and Leadbitter, being so underwhelming throughout. I left the stadium feeling a bit disappointed with things but looking back now it feels like a decent return for us, though knowing that the referee and his assistant(s) have missed one of the most blatant handballs you’re ever likely to see only adds to the feelings of frustration because we really should be talking about a 1-0 Boro victory right now. But these things will even themselves out, as they say.

And, in a break from tradition, I’ve put some player ratings on this one just to see what happens.

Konstantopoulos 6, Varga 6, Friend 6, Omeruo 6, Gibson 6, Chalobah 5, Leadbitter 5, Carayol 7, Ledesma 5, Tomlin 4, Graham 6. SUBS: Adomah 5, Whitehead 6, Kamara 5.

Middlesbrough 0 Blackburn Rovers 0

Looking back, in hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have watched the first-half of the Liverpool – Arsenal game before I left the house for this one. I really shouldn’t. Not because I didn’t enjoy watching Liverpool play some really scintillating football for half-an-hour or so, but because it encouraged my mind to wander towards believing that we might see something similar, relatively speaking, at the Riverside. Given the way we play under Karanka being 4-0 ahead at the break seemed highly unlikely but that’s what happens sometimes, isn’t it. You get carried away and convince yourself that this one will be different, somehow, which isn’t always a sensible thing to do with the prospect of a home game against Blackburn Rovers on a cold and blustery February afternoon firmly on the horizon.

To be fair to us though, it was a little bit different from the Wigan Athletic game in terms of how we approached it. Danny Graham was in for his first start for us and Carayol and Ledesma were selected, with Leadbitter playing just off Graham – or at least I think that’s where he was supposed to be playing – and Nathaniel Chalobah making his home debut alongside Deano in the engine-room. Blackburn went with Rudy Gestede and Jordan Rhodes up top, Schürrle one of the more dangerous partnerships in the division, with Tom Cairney patrolling the halfway-line looking to drive their lads forward whenever he could. The best Yorkshire pudding storage facility this side of David Dunn, Paul Robinson, kept goal for them and their left-back, Tommy Spurr, was wearing a motorcycle helmet.

We started okay, as did they, but the game never really got going until the fifteen or so minutes mark – Carayol and Friend began to link up very nicely down our left-hand side and by the end of the half Blackburn really couldn’t cope with it, with Carayol’s pace and trickery a particular highlight of the half. We had a few digs from distance but Paul Robinson was relatively untroubled, though he did get down smartly to his right-hand side to claw out a header from one of our lads – quite possibly Ben Gibson, though it was difficult to see for certain who headed it from the other end of the stadium. There was a thirty-minute period of the first-half where I actually enjoyed watching us play, which is in stark contrast to the Wigan game a couple of weeks back, as Carayol charged forward at every opportunity and beat his man, Todd Kane, every single time. So good was Carayol in that first-half that Kane was replaced by Rovers gaffer Gary Bowyer at half-time.

Despite Carayol’s best efforts, and as the half wore on the efforts of George Friend too, the most noticeable problem for the Boro is that we only had one man in the box for the vast majority of the game. This has gone on for quite some time, of course, but considering our lack of goals of late it’d be nice to think we’d be prepared to show just a little bit more ambition at times, especially when playing at home. If Graham ‘gambles’ and hurtles across towards the near-post then there is nobody behind him to follow things up, which is frustrating to watch a lot of the time. When Graham delayed his movement in order to try and read what sort of cross Carayol was going to deliver then that didn’t work either because it’s nigh-on impossible to know what Carayol is going to do with the ball, so much so that not even Muzzy seems to know what he’s going to do a lot of the time.

What may have helped today was if Grant Leadbitter was prepared to actually step foot inside the Blackburn penalty-area, which is something he failed to do all day. If the player designated to play the ‘no.10’ position, the bloke who links everything together, isn’t going to get himself into the box a few times then what chance has the striker got if he’s in there on his own? Not much, I’d say, and that’s how it went for us. I’m not sure Leadbitter has the legs and the overall quality needed to play this kind of role for us successfully if I’m being honest, which isn’t necessarily a criticism of him but maybe more a sense of frustration that we didn’t push on a bit more generally. Leadbitter was afforded the luxury of having two blokes sitting behind him, mopping things up and keeping things ticking over, so if he isn’t going to burst into the box in that kind of set-up then I don’t think he ever will.

Anyway, the second-half kind of dragged on a bit towards the end. Danny Graham lamped one forward for Carayol to chase and his pace caught their lads out, presenting Muzzy with a one-on-one against Robinson but he lacked the composure needed to stick it away and played it straight against the big Yorkshireman. Albert Adomah came off the bench and launched a lovely left-footed drive towards the Rovers goal but it was a bit too central, perhaps, and Robinson tipped it over and out for a corner. The corners seemed to mount up a bit but you’d have to give Blackburn credit and say that, by and large, they dealt with them pretty well for the duration. Kamara and Main were sent on late on but didn’t really have enough time to make an impact, though a couple of things did stand out – one was Main being deployed on the left-wing, which is bizarre, and also the outstanding cross that one of our lads sent into the box at the death. To me it almost seemed as though Main was kind of ‘hiding’ behind the defender, he didn’t really read the cross at all, when a more seasoned striker may just have taken a chance and nipped across to get his header in. Ian Baird, for example, would’ve ripped the net out with a chance like that.

The referee then brought the curtain down on yet another 0-0 draw and we all trudged off and into a load of rain and icy wind with loads to contemplate. There are positives for us; Carayol played very well indeed, though he did tire towards end of it. George Friend’s marked improvement continued and there were signs today that he is starting to bring the attacking aspect of his game back into the equation, only now he’s doing it in a much more disciplined fashion. Ben Gibson was, yet again, very solid and gets better with every passing match. Dean Whitehead was solid again, Chalobah kind of coasted through it but he did a few decent things(I’d like to see him be more assertive, in truth, though maybe that will come with playing more games for us). Shay Given barely had a save to make as Blackburn created next-to-nowt all match, which is testament to the way we defended as a unit. Varga was solid again and I do like watching a player with that sort of tenacity.

But there are also negatives; Woodgate looked a little slow at times and needed Gibson to cover for him on occasion, Leadbitter looked out-of-sorts playing a role that his game isn’t really suited to and most of what Ledesma tried didn’t come off. These are only slight negatives, certainly, because we did okay really. We were the better side, we kept another clean-sheet and put another point on the board. I think the biggest negative, the real negative if you like, is that large parts of the second-half were pretty tedious on account of us leaving Danny Graham to fend for himself and the team not committing enough bodies forward often enough. We created nothing at all for Graham and chose to just clip it towards him far too often, which didn’t work. We need to get him some support, occupy the other centre-half by having somebody prepared to get themselves into the box, and try to use that to open the game up for him if we want him to score goals because he won’t get too many if we use him like we did today. Fingers crossed that Lee Tomlin can come into the side in a couple of weeks time and give us that spark we need.

All in all, I’m fairly satisfied because we were the better side, and kept yet another clean-sheet, but the feeling that there is more to come from this side in terms of attacking the opposition and scoring some goals means I’m a little frustrated tonight. We’re almost there but not quite, so I’ll try and think about the positives as we head towards next week’s visit to Vicarage Road and the 0-0 draw with Watford.

What The Others Were Doing

This is a late one this one, it really should’ve been posted four or five days ago, well seven days ago if you want to be pedantic, but I trawled the internet throughout the January transfer window to keep track of which teams were doing what in terms of players coming in and players going out. I’m determined to use said list so here it is, in it’s all relative glory.

There wasn’t too much to get excited about really – apart from what the Boro were doing of course – aside from seeing Charlton Athletic take what appears to be a pretty big risk by way of bringing in six players from overseas, none of whom have any experience of playing in the English leagues. A lot of that will have to do with their new owner, who also owns Standard Liege, but when you’re scrapping away down at the bottom of the table I’m not sure how wise a move it is to go down that sort of road with your signings.

Barnsley and Blackpool did quite a lot of business between them, not surprising seeing as they have new managers in place – Danny Wilson and Barry Ferguson respectively(though Ferguson is yet to be made manager on a permanent basis) – with both clubs involved in no fewer than twenty-two deals between them. Blackburn Rovers allowed fifteen players to leave the club, ten of them on loan, whilst Reading were the only side not to sign a single player. Leeds United were the only club not to lose a player during the window(though Ryan Hall has this week joined MK Dons on a free transfer). One of Leeds’ three loan signings, Andrea Tabanelli, remains something of a mystery at this stage as he was apparently signed by a bloke who didn’t actually own the club at the time he signed. So we’ll have to wait and see with that one, and I’m sure we’ll all be on tenterhooks as we await news of whether the relevant authorities have ratified his move to Elland Road.

But it was generally much of a muchness, across the division, as the teams at the top look to cement their places at the business end of the table and the teams at the bottom take one last throw of the dice in a bid to stave off the threat of relegation to the third division. QPR were the busiest of the teams at the top, as you would expect of a club managed by Harry Redknapp, as they added four strikers and the experienced Aaron Hughes to their ranks just before the deadline passed – one of whom was the highly-rated Will Keane on loan from Manchester United.

Anyway, here’s the full list – and it’s worth pointing out that I’ve included the deals that were completed up to and including February 7th because it would seem daft not to seeing as I’ve already got them noted down.

AFC BOURNEMOUTH
IN: Yann Kermogant – Charlton Athletic(undisclosed), Adam Smith – Tottenham Hotspur(undisclosed), Josh O’Hanlon – Longford Town(undisclosed), Lee Camp – West Bromwich Albion(free), Jonathan Muleba – Chelsea(undisclosed), Ben Whitfield – Guiseley(undisclosed)
OUT: Wes Thomas – Rotherham United(undisclosed), Wes Fogden – Portsmouth(free), Miles Addison – Rotherham United(loan), Matt Tubbs – Crawley Town(loan), Jayden Stockley – Torquay United(loan)

BARNSLEY
IN: Emmanuel Frimpong – Arsenal(undisclosed), Liam Lawrence – PAOK Salonika(free), Martin Woods(free), Iain Turner(free), Brek Shea – Stoke City(loan), Jack Hunt – Crystal Palace(loan), Nick Proschwitz – Hull City(loan), Ryan McLaughlin – Liverpool(loan)
OUT: Chris Dagnall – Leyton Orient(free), Scott Wiseman – Preston North End(free), Jim McNulty – Bury(free), David Perkins – Blackpool(free), Jason Scotland – Hamilton Academical(free)

BIRMINGHAM CITY
IN: Brian Howard – CSKA Sofia(free), Aaron Martin – Southampton(free), Emyr Hughes – Manchester City(loan), Albert Rusnak – Manchester City(loan), Federico Macheda – Manchester United(loan), Tyler Blackett – Manchester United(loan), Tom Thorpe – Manchester United(loan)
OUT: Fisayo Adarabioyo – St Johnstone(free), Darren Ambrose – Apollon Smyani(loan), Wade Elliott – Bristol City(loan), Hayden Mullins – Notts County(loan)

BLACKBURN ROVERS
IN: Rudy Gestede – Cardiff City(undisclosed), Tom Cairney – Hull City(undisclosed), Craig Conway – Cardiff City(undisclosed), Bryan Dabo – Montpellier(loan)
OUT: Scott Dann – Crystal Palace(undisclosed), Raheem Hanley – Swansea City(undisclosed), Bruno Ribeiro – Clube Atletico Linense(free), Edinho Junior – Harrisburg City Islanders(free), Fabio Nunes – Latina(free), Bradley Orr – Toronto(loan), DJ Campbell – Millwall(loan), David Goodwillie – Blackpool(loan), Ruben Rochina – Rayo Vallecano(loan), Jordan Slew – Ross County(loan), Alan Judge – Brentford(loan), Alex Marrow – Fleetwood Town(loan), Yann Songo’o – Ross County(loan), John O’Sullivan – Southport(loan), Kellen Daly – Southport(loan)

BLACKPOOL
IN: Tony McMahon – Sheffield United(undisclosed), David Perkins – Barnsley(free), Faris Haroun – Middlesbrough(free), Elliot Grandin – Crystal Palace(free), David Goodwillie – Blackburn Rovers(loan), Andy Halliday – Middlesbrough(loan), Stephen Dobbie – Crystal Palace(loan), Andy Keogh – Millwall(loan)
OUT: Bob Harris – Sheffield United(undisclosed), Tom Ince – Crystal Palace(loan)

BOLTON WANDERERS
IN: Yannick Bastos – FC Differdange(undisclosed), Neil Danns – Leicester City(loan), Lukas Jutkiewicz – Middlesbrough(loan), Liam Trotter – Millwall(loan)
OUT: David N’Gog – Swansea City(undisclosed), Michael O’Halloran – St Johnstone(free), Craig Davies – Preston North End(loan), Gary Fraser – Partick Thistle(loan)

BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION
IN: Dale Stephens – Charlton Athletic(undisclosed), Jeffrey Monakana – Preston North End(undisclosed), David Rodriguez – Celta Vigo(free), Jonathan Obika – Tottenham Hotspur(loan)
OUT: Liam Bridcutt – Sunderland(£3m), Ashley Barnes – Burnley(undisclosed), Adam El-Abd – Bristol City(undisclosed), George Barker – Swindon Town(undisclosed), Vitājlis Maksimenko – Kilmarnock(loan), Shamir Goodwin – Torquay United(loan)

BURNLEY
IN: Ashley Barnes – Brighton & Hove Albion(undisclosed)
OUT: Marvin Bartley – Leyton Orient(free), George Porter – Rochdale(free), Joseph Mills – Shrewsbury Town(loan), Luke O’Neill – Southend United(loan)

CHARLTON ATHLETIC
IN: Reza Ghoochennejhad – Standard Liege(undisclosed), Piotr Parzyszek – De Graafschap(undisclosed), Luic Nego – Ujpest(undisclosed), Astrit Ajdarevic – Standard Liege(loan), Yohann Thuram-Ulien – Standard Liege(loan), Anil Koc – Standard Liege(loan)
OUT: Yann Kermogant – AFC Bournemouth(undisclosed), Dale Stephens – Brighton & Hove Albion(undisclosed), Ben Alnwick – Leyton Orient(undisclosed), Michael Smith – Stevenage Borough(undisclosed), Joe Pigott – Gillingham(loan), Nick Pope – York City(loan)

DERBY COUTY
IN: Simon Dawkins – Tottenham Hotspur(undisclosed), Kelle Roos – Nuneaton Borough(undisclosed), Patrick Bamford – Chelsea(loan), George Thorne – West Bromwich Albion(loan)
OUT: Michael Jacobs – Wolverhampton Wanderers(undisclosed), Kieron Freeman – Notts County(loan), Ross Atkins – Crawley Town(loan), Kalifa Cisse(released)

DONCASTER ROVERS
IN: Gabriel Tamas – CFR Cluj(free), Abdoulaye Meite – FC Honka(free), Billy Sharp – Southampton(loan), Sam Johnstone – Manchester United(loan)
OUT: David Syers – Scunthorpe United(undisclosed), Billy Paynter – Sheffield United(loan), Kyle Bennett – Bradford City(loan)

HUDDERSFIELD TOWN
IN: Nakhi Wells – Bradford City(undisclosed), Joe Lolley – Kidderminster Harriers(undisclosed), Sondre Tronstad – IK Start(undisclosed)
OUT: James Burke – Bury(free), Robbie McIntyre – Bury(free), James Spencer – Notts County(free), Jonathan Stead – Oldham Athletic(loan), Liam Ridehalgh – Tranmere Rovers(loan), Chris Atkinson – Bradford City(loan)

IPSWICH TOWN
IN: Frazer Richardson – Middlesbrough(loan)
OUT: Frederic Veseli – Bury(loan), Jack Marriott – Gillingham(loan), Elliott Hewitt – Gillingham(loan)

LEEDS UNITED
IN: Jimmy Kebe – Crystal Palace(loan), Cameron Stewart – Hull City(loan), Andrea Tabanelli – Cagliari(loan)
OUT: Ryan Hall – Milton Keynes Dons(free)

LEICESTER CITY
IN: Riyad Mahrez – Le Havre(undisclosed), Kevin Phillips – Crystal Palace(free)
OUT: Neil Danns – Bolton Wanderers(loan), Martyn Waghorn – Wigan Athletic(loan), Zoumana Bakayogo – Yeovil Town(loan), Adam Smith – Stevenage Borough(loan), Alie Sesay – Colchester United(loan)

MIDDLESBROUGH
IN: Daniel Ayala – Norwich City(undisclosed), Nathaniel Chalobah – Chelsea(loan), Kenneth Omeruo – Chelsea(loan), Danny Graham – Sunderland(loan), Lee Tomlin – Peterborough United(loan)
OUT: Justin Hoyte – Milwall(undisclosed), Faris Haroun – Blackpool(free), Marvin Emnes – Swansea City(loan), Lukas Jutkiewicz – Bolton Wanderers(loan), Richie Smallwood – Rotherham United(loan), Frazer Richardson – Ipswich Town(loan), Adam Reach – Bradford City(loan), Luke Williams – Hartlepool United(loan), Charlie Wyke – AFC Wimbledon(loan)

MILLWALL
IN: Justin Hoyte – Middlesbrough(undisclosed), Shaun Williams – Milton Keynes Dons(undisclosed), Ed Upson – Yeovil Town(undisclosed), Simeon Jackson – Eintracht Frankfurt(free), Ryan Fredericks – Tottenham Hotspur(loan), DJ Campbell – Blackburn Rovers(loan)
OUT: James Henry – Wolverhampton Wanderers(undisclosed), Karleigh Osbourne – Bristol City(undisclosed), Liam Trotter – Bolton Wanderers(loan), Andy Keogh – Blackpool(loan), Aiden O’Brien – Torquay United(loan)

NOTTINGHAM FOREST
IN: Rafik Djebbour – Olympiakos(undisclosed), Jack Hobbs – Hull City(undisclosed), David Vaughan – Sunderland(loan), Danny Fox – Southampton(loan), Kevin Gomis – Nice(loan)
OUT: Ishmael Miller – Yeovil Town(loan), Mark Davies – St Johnstone(loan)

QUEENS PARK RANGERS
IN: Coll Donaldson – Livingston(undisclosed), Kevin Doyle – Wolverhampton Wanderers(loan), Modibo Maiga – West Ham United(loan), Aaron Hughes – Fulham(loan), Will Keane – Manchester United(loan), Guilherme Dellatorre – Deportivo Brazil(loan)
OUT: Oguchi Onyewu – Sheffield Wednesday(free), Adel Taarabt – AC Milan(loan), Samba Diakite – Watford(loan), Tom Hitchcock – Rotherham United(loan)

READING
IN:
OUT: Dominic Samuel – Dagenham & Redbridge(loan), Jonathan Henly – Oxford United(loan)

SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY
IN: Oguchi Onyewu – Queens Park Rangers(free), Benik Afobe – Arsenal(loan)
OUT: Arron Jameson – Bradford City(loan)

WATFORD
IN: Mathias Ranegie – Udinese(undisclosed), Park Chu-Young – Arsenal(loan), Samba Diakite – Queens Park Rangers(loan), Daniel Tozser – Genoa(loan), Alexander Merkel – Udinese(loan)
OUT: Adam Thompson – Southend United(undisclosed), Javier Acuna – Osasuna(loan), Iriney – Real Mallorca(loan), Uche Ikpeazu – Crewe Alexandra(loan), Connor Smith – Gillingham(loan)

WIGAN ATHLETIC
IN: Marcus Holgersson – New York Red Bulls(free), Josh McEachran – Chelsea(loan), Nicky Maynard – Cardiff City(loan), Tyias Browning – Everton(loan), Martyn Waghorn – Leicester City(loan)
OUT: Nouha Dicko – Wolverhampton Wanderers(undisclosed), Grant Holt – Aston Villa(loan), Fraser Fyvie – Shrewsbury Town(loan), Adam Buxton – Burton Albion(loan), Jordan Mustoe – Wycombe Wanderers(loan)

YEOVIL TOWN
IN: Adam Morgan – Liverpool(free), Matteo Lanzoni – Oldham Athletic(free), Shane Duffy – Everton(loan), Zoumana Bakayogo – Leicester City(loan), Ishmael Miller – Nottingham Forest(loan), Tom Lawrence – Manchester United(loan)
OUT: Paddy Madden – Scunthorpe United(undisclosed), Ed Upson – Millwall(undisclosed), Dan Seaborne – Coventry City(free)

Quietly Going About Our Business

The January transfer window is absolute madness, that much is obvious. Clubs gambling the house on a big Scandinavian lunk after seeing a compilation video of some good headers he did a while back, managers scouring the youth and reserve teams of Premier League clubs in the hope of finding the new Josh McEachran. It’s daft, isn’t it. Daft. But the Boro went about their business with the minimum of fuss, it seems, operating in an efficient and ruthless manner as we had something of a mid-season cull of the playing-staff whilst adding five new players to the squad. And when you look down the list of incomings and outgoings, it’d be hard not to reach the conclusion that when the transfer window ‘slammed shut’, as they say on satellite television, the squad was in a healthier state than it was when Sky Sports, sorry, I mean the authorities, declared the window open on January 1st.

Given that Karanka favours a high-tempo pressing game and sets his teams up accordingly, the signings of Kenneth Omeruo and Nathaniel Chalobah from Chelsea, both of whom are athletic, upwardly-mobile footballers comfortable in more than one position on the field, made sense for a variety of reasons. Omeruo is a Nigerian international looking to book his place in their World Cup squad and Chalobah was one of the stand out players in a Watford side that made it all to Wembley and the play-off final before succumbing 1-0 to Kevin Phillips last season. Whilst these two lads do come with pedigree, one cause for concern, for me anyway, is that they’re both very young footballers coming from an incredibly wealthy club that doesn’t really seem interested in giving it’s academy graduates a chance in their own first-team and looks towards other clubs, less wealthy clubs, to do their donkey-work for them. And when you consider the amount of money, time and effort we put into our own academy set-up, I have some reservations about these kinds of deals if it means one or two of our own kids miss out on the chance of some involvement within the first-team environment. But, of course, if the two lads prove themselves on the pitch then it’ll be very difficult to argue with the logic behind bringing them in.

Daniel Ayala then marked the turning of his loan-move from Norwich City into a permanent deal with some Jon Gittens-esque defending at Leicester City, costing us a goal in the process, but by and large he’s been an integral part of a much-improved defence that has kept six clean-sheets in their last eight league outings. He’s an interesting one, Ayala, because he’s an agricultural defender, shall we say, who can head the ball as far as most goalkeepers can kick it but he does have the odd lapse in him. The hope would be that he continues to improve in the way that he has been and, if he does that, we’ve got ourselves a bargain at around £350,000.

Of course, it wouldn’t be ‘deadline day’ without the club making us wait until the dying embers of proceedings before adding some much-needed attacking impetus to the squad; Becchio, Doyle, Dorrans, some kid from Holland, they were all talked about at relative length but it does seem like the gaffer had decided fairly early-on that Danny Graham was his preferred choice to take over the no.9 position. It’s good to have him back as he is proven in the second-tier, and he is a clear improvement on Lukas Jutkiewicz, but I get the feeling he needs to get his goal as quickly as possible because he’s endured an incredibly poor 2013. That said, scoring goals at Premier League level is a much more demanding task than scoring them in the division below so I’m optimistic about the lad rediscovering his knack and banging a few in for us. The deal for Lee Tomlin, who seems to be a bit of a nutter really, had to wait until the clock struck eleven but it’s clear that we’d been trying to get it done for a good old while as a deal to make the move permanent next summer is already in place. I don’t know an awful lot about him, aside from the fact he’s got goals in him, he likes to shoot and get involved in the play as often as possible and he gets sent-off quite a lot. Unusual as it may sound, the thought of watching a little stocky bloke from Peterborough United strut his stuff on the Riverside pitch is actually quite exciting.

In terms of outgoings, well once again Karanka’s ruthlessness in shipping out those who either weren’t playing or, to be frank, weren’t delivering was a fresh of breath air(that’s deliberately the wrong way round, by the way, a la Roy Keane on telly sometime last season). Lukas Jutkiewicz’s move from Coventry City just hasn’t worked out and his last few performances for us, barring a good hour or so against Burnley on Boxing Day, had been very poor. Sometimes it just doesn’t look like working for a player and the more he played for us, the less likely it seemed he would turn it around. Bolton Wanderers have found the perfect replacement for David N’Gog, perhaps. We also allowed Faris Haroun to join Blackpool for 50p and and a handful of Our Price vouchers.

The most interesting departure is that of Marvin Emnes to Swansea City. Personally, I’m relieved he’s gone because I don’t think he offered enough to the side – one goal and four ‘assists’ this season speaks for itself. Six goals and seven ‘assists’ since the start of last season doesn’t just speak for itself, it absolutely bellows at you through a megaphone down a loud-haler thing that’s plugged into a really powerful amp. The kind-hearted members of our support will remember him as a talented boy who scored a handful of spectacular goals(that sublime scissor-kick thing he did at Walsall in the cup, the screamer at Elland Road), though I suspect most of us will remember him as someone who failed to apply himself properly a lot of the time, who didn’t seem to like taking a shot on or getting into the box, and as someone who liked to drop deep into the midfield, far too deep at times, and faff about instead of doing the things he was good at. I don’t think it’s much of a surprise that Karanka has allowed him to move on just three months into the job, though it will be interesting to see how he gets on in the Premier League.

The one I was most disappointed to see leave the club was Richie Smallwood; an ever-industrious player who never let the team down when called upon and a lad who I thought would prosper under Karanka, in fact I think he was prospering actually but, well, what can you do. The gaffer thought it best for him to be out playing every week instead of having a few minutes here and there for us and it’s hard to argue against that, especially if Nathaniel Chalobah lives up to the hype. The others who left; Halliday, Reach, Luke Williams, Frazer Richardson – well will we actually miss them? They’ve barely featured for us this season and it’s better for everyone if they’re out there getting a regular game instead of loitering about somewhere between the U21 side and Nandos.

So all in all it looks like did some good business and seemingly improved the squad, the team itself, whilst simultaneously ridding ourselves of some of the lads who needed moving on to pastures new. Not being able to extend Shay Given’s loan might be the one thing we regret but, to put it simply, we can’t afford to pay him the kind of money Aston Villa pay him so we move on to someone else. It’ll be interesting to see how Jason Steele fares behind a new-look defence, behind a resolute team that defends from the front, as opposed to the circus he was playing behind prior to his sending-off at Leeds but maybe Karanka will fancy getting another experienced head to see us through to the end of the season. All we can say about this window is that it’s put us in a decent position to build on the recent improvements and that the squad looks in better shape now than it was a month ago, which is pretty much all you can ask for of a manager and his staff once the the window ‘slams shut’, as they say on satellite television.

Middlesbrough 0 Wigan Athletic 0

I was up for this one, I really was. I’d primed the iPod with a little bit of Joy Zipper for the first stage of the walk down to the game and had some Bo Ningen ready for when the stadium appeared on the horizon. Not even the rain could dampen my enthusiasm for a game against the FA Cup holders under the lights. Indeed, I’d even done that thing you sometimes do when it’s raining on the way to a game and convinced myself there’d be some ‘zip’ on the grass so we’d be in for a cast-iron treat. Everything had come together, it seemed. Those feelings of anticipation and excitement lasted about seven minutes though, unfortunately, as it became clear, even at that early stage, that we were going to be in for an archetypal second-tier grind of a game where we were going to have to simply work hard and dig in for ninety minutes.

We’d picked a pretty forward-thinking team, at least on paper we had anyway, and gone with two strikers and two wingers as well as Leadbitter. It was a surprise to Curtis Main involved from the start but perhaps that says more about the fitness-levels of Kei Kamara than it does anything else, if we’re being honest. It appeared as if Main was going to try and set the tone of the game from the very first minute as he hurtled off towards Emmerson Boyce to charge down his clearance but it didn’t inspire anything too serious from the lads. Wigan soon settled into a relatively effective stride and despite not really creating anything of any note it was clear they were well-drilled and had better footballers than we do. That lass in central-midfield, Roger Espinoza, gave probably the best performance I’ve seen from an opposition midfielder at the Riverside this season and it was actually rather enjoyable to sit back and watch what they were trying to do. Uwe Rosler was barking his head off and doing some serious pointing at things as Wigan moved the ball around in leisurely fashion, though he must’ve been frustrated with how little Wigan created in front of goal.

As for the Boro, it almost seemed as if we knew we weren’t going to win it really early on so made sure we didn’t lose it. Ledesma tried to make things happen but it just wasn’t really his sort of night to be honest. What did for us, I think, was Wigan playing with such a high-line across the defence and then really condensing the midfield when they didn’t have the ball. They pushed us back and pushed the wingers right back on top of Friend and Varga, meaning that when we did have possession they were right in our faces and we had no real choice but to lump it in the general direction of Curtis Main. It was difficult to watch but you have to give Wigan credit, I think that’s only fair. We did have one or two sniffs of goal; Carayol managed to beat James Perch before cutting inside and drilling a shot wide of the target from twenty-odd yards and we had a header cleared off the line, or close to the line, though as it was at the other end of the ground I’m not sure whose header it actually was. It was probably Ayala. It’s always Ayala.

Just as the first-half was reaching it’s climax, disaster struck as Rhys Williams, who’d actually been having another decent game for us, seemed to lose his balance on the halfway-line before going down and staying down. Sometimes, you just ‘know’ when it’s a bad one. He barely moved and the stretcher and all the gear was called for, the brace, the other club doctor – you know, the older, slower one who ambles across the pitch like he knows there’s a brew waiting for him at the end of it. So that was that; Ben Gibson came on and put in a good performance for us but it’s bitterly disappointing to lose a first-team player with what looks to be a serious injury when the gaffer has just trimmed his squad right back to the quick but there you go.

The second-half was pretty much more of the same really; Wigan held the ball well and Espinoza’s influence on proceedings grew as time went by, though they still weren’t creating much. Karanka seemed to fancy taking the shackles off for a bit, throwing on Adomah on for an ineffective Emnes and we had a good five or six minute period of relative pressure following on from that – Ledesma found himself clear in the box but at an unforgiving angle so gave it to Main but he fluffed his lines and skewed his shot over the bar from ten yards. If ever a moment summed up the season so far in terms of our strikers then that was probably it. Not long after that Carayol whipped a decent cross in and Varga got behind their left-back but his pull-back was too cute for any of our lads to read so the chance went begging. Wigan were still neat and tidy and James McArthur brought a smashing save out of the effervescent Shay Given with about ten minutes to go before one of their lads invited Given to throw his cap over a header at goal just after. And that was it – the referee blew for time and everybody stood up and trudged out in an orderly fashion.

It’s been a tricky one to digest has this one because a part of me is really annoyed that the lads didn’t seem to believe they were capable of winning it, whereas another part is pleased we restricted an easy-on-the-eye side packed with top-level experience to so few opportunities and kept yet another clean-sheet. There were some clear positives, of course; Daniel Ayala’s head is a magnet for the ball on a ridiculous scale, George Friend’s steady improvement continues and the Red Faction simply refuse to entertain the idea of sitting down and do anything other than sing their heads off for the lads. You’ve got to admire them for that.

Anyway, I think it’s one of those games where I’ll consider it a good point once the dust has settled and we’ve added a striker or two to the squad but right now it’s all a little bit underwhelming round my way. Saturday afternoon and a trip to Doncaster Rovers can’t come soon enough…

He’s The Real Deal, Isn’t He?

I bloody love Aitor Karanka I do. There, I’ve said it. And I’ve said it because at this moment in time it feels right, it really does. I mean, it’s not very often I can sit here writing something about the Boro on the back of a 2-0 defeat to Leicester City of a miserable January afternoon, as well as needlessly torturing myself by watching three incredibly turgid FA Cup games on the telly, and still feel optimistic about the next few games of football but that’s what’s happening. If I had a hat I’d take it off, if I had a cap then I’d doff it. But I have neither of those things so I’ll have to make do with jotting this down(can you ‘jot’ on a keyboard?) instead.

Karanka being given the term ‘Head Coach’ as opposed to the more familiar role of ‘manager’ may have raised a couple of eyebrows at the time of his appointment as it brings with it it’s own set of connotations but if the role of a coach is to make his players better footballers and set about moulding a squad into an effective team then Karanka has, so far at least, more than delivered on those fronts. He and his staff have taken a bunch of seriously under-performing players and turned them into a well-drilled and effective outfit in a very short space of time, as well as turning an absolutely horrendous defence into a unit that has registered five clean-sheets in seven league games. They’ve taken us from the fringes of the relegation zone to the edges of the play-off places and reinstalled a collective confidence and feeling of genuine momentum.

Pure hard work on the training field coupled with an astute approach to tactics, as well as the signing of Shay Given, has brought about a sense of freshness to not just the team but the supporters too. Gone are the days when we watched the lads ambling around in the middle of the pitch going from side-to-side and back again, the days where the striker spent most of the game thirty-odd yards away from his team-mates whilst trying to get on the end of his own flick-ons. Though we generally enjoy less possession in games than we did prior to Karanka taking over, when we do have the ball we play with an intensity and with a strong sense of urgency about what we’re trying to do. And that is thoroughly refreshing to watch. The improvement in several members of the squad is remarkable, too.

Dean Whitehead is almost unrecognisable from the bloke we saw plodding around on the halfway-line wheezing his head off after hour or so of games and is now an integral part of a disciplined and efficient midfield unit. Emmanuel Ledesma has emerged from the shadows to become an important cog in our attacking armoury. George Friend is showing signs of maturity and doesn’t gallop off like a daft horse in a daft Western any more and Jozsef Varga has come into the side and added some much-needed tenacity to the problematic right-back spot. And Daniel Ayala has come through a shaky first few games and grown into a proper centre-half who enjoys getting his nut on stuff in his own box, and it’s been too long since we had one of those types in the ranks.

In terms of the collective, well the centre-halves no longer being camped on the edge of their own box with a holding-midfielder being perched right on top of them, as well as the full-backs being in the side primarily to defend, means we aren’t prone to being carved open at will any more. The full-backs have one job to do and can concentrate on that instead of having to offer the width in attack, instead of having to try and stretch the opposition. The attacking players on the flanks now have more space to operate in and can do their stuff without worrying about what’s going on behind them and Grant Leadbitter can enjoy not having to do three and four jobs simultaneously any more and focus on getting involved in the middle of the pitch whilst trying to drive the team forward.

But perhaps the most pleasing difference under Karanka, for me anyway, is that we now have a solid platform in place and a solid base from which to build in games. Now the defence has been tightened up the lads can go out and play and not worry about there being a serious traffic accident behind them, as was once the case. The players know what they’re supposed to be doing and go out and do it without over-thinking it. A subtle change from a 4-5-1-cum-4-3-3 to a more rigid 4-2-3-1 coupled with the burden of being in the side to do multiple jobs now lifted from certain players means we look like a proper football team for the first time in almost a year.

Of course, there is still a load of donkey-work for Karanka to plough through. Marvin Emnes, Lukas Jutkiewicz and Curtis Main have three league goals between them this season and Emnes and Jutkiewicz haven’t scored a goal between them since August. It’s quite incredible to think we are the third-highest scorers in the division when our two senior strikers haven’t hit the target for about five months but there you go. I’m still not sure what Emnes is supposed to be and the longer Jutkiewicz’s abysmal run goes on the more unlikely a goal from him seems. If we are serious about winning promotion, and going off what Karanka has said and done so far then you’d have to say that we are indeed deadly serious about winning promotion, then it’s more than likely that both of those players will have to be moved out and replaced.

But those problems aside, the improvements made over the course of the past five or six weeks or so are startling. This bloke just isn’t going to mess about and watching the way he’s operated in the transfer market this month provides adds even more weight to the feeling that he has a very strong ruthless streak. Richie Smallwood, Adam Reach, Luke Williams and Andy Halliday have all departed on loan as and despite my fondness for young Richie it’s incredibly hard to argue with rationale the rationale behind Karanka’s decision to send them out for a spell of regular first-team football.

Can it continue? Well I don’t see why not. We’ve adopted a seemingly simple yet ruthless approach to the way we go about things and we have enough quality in the side to trouble any team in this division. If we can improve on the strikers we have at the club then I don’t see any reason this charge up the table can’t continue until fag-end of proceedings and take us into the top-six. And when you consider where we were when Karanka took charge it’s absolutely incredible to think we can talk in those terms with any degree of seriousness.

As I say, I bloody love Aitor Karanka I do.

Middlesbrough 0 Hull City 2

Not many things in life come close to the magic of the FA Cup Third Round Round Three, do they; finding a book you’ve been after reading for ages in a charity store, perhaps. Or a steaming hot bowl of noodles when you sense a sniffle or two on the horizon. Ah, that’s a good one. I might have noodles tomorrow actually because I’ve been sat in a cold and damp football stadium most of the day and you can’t be too careful, can you. Anyway, there was definitely a bit of magic in the air round my house this morning as the prospect of an eminently winnable tie against Hull City loomed large. Arriving at the ground and seeing the two team-sheets today was always going to be interesting – if you’re into that sort of thing, which I am – because it seemed obvious that Steve Bruce would ‘rest’ several first-team regulars whilst Karanka had promised to field as strong a side as possible.

So we started with Dimi Konstantopoulos in goal on account of injuries and ineligibility respectively, with Rhys Williams in alongside Ben Gibson because Norwich were too tight to let us play Daniel Ayala, with Luke Williams in down the left-hand side at the expense of Albert Adomah meaning that, barring that particular change, Karanka had pretty much stayed true to his word I thought. Hull, however, had seemingly made about twenty-nine changes to the team that started their most recent league game, with a whole host of players I’d forgotten even existed coming into the side. Abdoulaye Faye was in at the back, a walking concrete outhouse if ever I saw one, Sheffield United’s Stephen Quinn got a game, Matty Fryatt was also picked but had to drop out just before kick-off for reasons as yet unknown. That bloke off The Football League Show’s son was playing at right-back and Aaron McLean started in attack. Oh and Paul McShane of Hi-De-Hi fame was playing as well.

It was pretty clear we were going to be in for a very long day after about four minutes had ticked by; we’d gone into ‘Huddersfield Town at home’ mode and were allowing Hull City to stroke the ball around like it was a Fabergé egg on a snooker table. Eight and nine minutes passed and we’d barely pressed them at all, we’d stood off and admired, yes admired, David Meyler pulling the strings in the middle of the pitch and when we did get a touch of it we gave it straight back. Hull came forward down our right and ran into trouble, allowing Ledesma to ambitiously try and build an attack from near his own corner flag but giving it away in a stupid area and leaving the defence exposed; it bobbled about a bit, it found it’s way to one of their lads on the edge of the box who had a pop at goal, it took a deflection off someone or other and landed at the feet of McLean, Konstantopoulos came out and went down like a Weetabix falling out of the box and McLean poked it over him. And to cap it off, Konstantopolous injured himself trying to block it. Crumbs everywhere.

From then on it was, well, it was frankly awful. We couldn’t keep hold of possession in Hull’s half for long enough to get near their box, we weren’t pressing them and/or tackling them, we weren’t doing anything other than being sloppy and generally chasing shadows. Hull held us firmly at arm’s length for the rest of the half, though we did have a couple of pops at goal courtesy of Emnes and Ledesma. One of them hit Row Q and Steve Harper coughed in the general direction of Ledesma’s effort, which was enough to keep it out of his net. Karanka sent four or five of his substitutes out to warm up after thirty minutes or so and it was pretty clear he was going to try and make big changes at half-time.

We brought Adomah and Jutkiewicz on for Ledesma and Luke Williams and, bizarrely enough, stuck Main out on the left-wing for the second-half. I’d say it’s pretty unlikely we’ll be seeing the lad deployed in that particular area of the field again, to be honest, but the one thing you can’t question is his desire; when things are going as badly as they did in this game, when nothing any of the lads try comes off and you can’t get near the opposition’s goal, the one thing you want to see is commitment to the cause and Main has that in abundance. I’ll be honest here – there isn’t much to say about the second-half at all, other than to say Hull’s lads wanted it more than ours did, which is pretty disappointing, they did a professional job on us and made the Boro look incredibly mediocre. Which is disappointing when you’ve gone into the game on the back of three wins and a draw from four games over Christmas. Their second goal came courtesy of Nick Proschwitz after decent play from George Boyd down our left, with the big daft Austrian bloke blasting the ball into the top corner despite being off-balance. It was a tidy finish and Hull deserved it, in truth. We huffed and puffed a little bit towards the end, with Main’s header from Adomah’s cross hitting the side-netting and Leadbitter forcing Harper to routinely tip the ball over his bar for an injury-time corner but it was far too little too late from our point of view. And that was that.

The most worrying aspects to come out of the game, for me, were: Jutkiewicz blowing out of his backside after fifty-three minutes(I know this because I consulted my timepiece when I spotted him gasping for breath after being forced to run quite quickly twice in quick succession), George Friend seemingly regressing to where he was about four weeks ago and being generally careless both with and without the ball throughout, Luke Williams showing little hunger to impress in what was a rare chance to play in our first-team, Marvin Emnes not being able to do anything at all without looking like a useless Dad in a dated sitcom and the fact that we’ve allowed Hull to progress in the cup without having to really work for it.

We’ll have Given and Ayala back for Blackpool next week, hopefully Woodgate too, as well as a boy on-loan from Chelsea apparently, so it’s not all doom and gloom but it certainly feels that way right now because we’ve surrendered our place in the cup so tamely. We’ve been showing signs of gradual improvement under Karanka but this one, despite it being against a top-flight outfit with a lot of experience on the pitch, was one of the worst we’ve seen this season – and there is quite a bit of competition in that regard – and thoroughly awful from start to finish. Hopefully it’s just a minor blip for us and we can get ourselves going again next week but we can’t hide from the fact that Karanka has a load of work to do on the team in the coming weeks and months if he is to rid us of this ‘soft centre’ that has seemingly dogged us for the past three or four years, if not longer.

Right, well, I don’t want to be too miserable so let’s end it there and move on to the next one. Onwards and upwards and all of that sort of thing.

Middlesbrough 1 Burnley 0

I’ll start by being completely honest – when I arrived at the stadium and heard the team Karanka had selected to start this one, I wasn’t best pleased. To leave out Ben Gibson and Curtis Main after they’d both put in such good performances at Millwall on Saturday evening seemed incredibly harsh on the two young lads but, given that we’ve emerged from a game against a team that went into proceedings at the top of the table with three points and another clean-sheet in the bag, El Gaffer has been completely vindicated in making those changes and left me feeling slightly foolish for questioning his wisdom.

It was clear from the way we started the game that we were well and truly up for this one, which hasn’t always been the case at the Riverside this season, and it made for a really enjoyable opening period. We got into them, we pressed them, we played with a strong sense of purpose, we moved them around the pitch almost at will at times and we showed absolutely no fear in going about our business. Some of the football we played was a pleasure to watch; Emmanuel Ledesma was a constant threat down the right-hand side, cutting in onto his stronger left foot to thread a pass through or have a pop at goal on numerous occasions. Magic Marvin strolled around in the way that only Magic Marvin can, holding it up well and occupying enough of the opposition to allow our other attacking lads to do their stuff in threatening areas. Adomah was a nuisance for us down the left as their right-back, Kieran Trippier, grew to realis it made little difference whether he showed him the inside or the outside because Adomah would beat him regardless. Lukas Jutkiewicz gave us a great outlet also, winning most of the battles with their centre-halves before tiring late in the second-half.

The first half-an-hour, considering we were playing the league leaders, a team that had only lost two league games prior to their trip to Teesside, was probably the best I’ve seen us play this season. Our passing was very easy-on-the-eye, it was incisive and the speed at which we were knocking it around left the Burnley lads with very little time to prevent us creating plenty of chances; Adomah almost got onto the end of a delightful Ledesma cross, Jutkiewicz almost headed home yet another lovely cross but was about an inch too short to make it count. Ledesma lashed one just wide and went fairly close with a well-struck free-kick. The Argentine also played a sublime pass to set Adomah free down the left – as sterling passes go, this one wouldn’t look out of place alongside Dean Whitehead’s Xavi-esque effort against Bournemouth earlier in the campaign. That’s how good it was. It was absolutely no surprise when we did get our goal, and even less of a surprise that it came from Ledesma again. He was given far too much room, or maybe he made the room for himself, who knows, but he had enough time and space to get his head up and blast one past a hapless Tom Heaton in the Burnley net from well outside the area. It was no more than we deserved and we saw the remainder half out with relative ease, though Shay Given did pull off two fine saves from Burnley headers prior to half-time.

At that stage it was difficult to see how Burnley had got themselves to the league’s summit. Their tactics seemed to be boot it daft and long in the general direction of Sam Vokes, whose massive box-of-Roses-shaped bonce might nod something in the general direction of Danny Ings. Other than that, they seemed to be good at trying to switch the play but getting too much on it and putting it for throw-in after throw-in. Whether they were just having a bad day at the office, as they say, or whether the quality of our performance had taken them by surprise a little bit, it’s difficult to say but I’m going to go with the latter. When they did have it for a few moments, they found every long-ball they played was coming straight back at the them via the unbeatable-in-the-air partnership of Ayala and Woodgate. In all fairness, they’re clearly a well-drilled, well-disciplined and well-oiled outfit but them being top of the league, going into this game at least, just goes to show how fine the line is in this division.

As the second-half started to take shape it was clear that Sean Dyche, a man who always seems to sound like a Sesame Street character on the edge of a nervous breakdown, had been into the collective ear of his team and had them much more ‘at it’ and in our faces. They pushed us back and tried to get at our full-backs, particularly Joszef Varga, but they struggled to create anything of note for the most part. Varga seemed to rise to the challenge and flung himself into tackles and blocks like Jamie Pollock in his pomp and did more than enough to make Michael Kightly, a decent second-tier winger, look crap enough to be unceremoniously hauled off after an hour or so. Karanka sensed the growing danger and swapped Marvin Emnes for Grant Leadbitter to try and shore up the midfield and it definitely made things harder for our opponents. Karanka seems to have a canny knack for making substitutions that have a positive influence on how the game is going and that’s a pretty exciting thing I think. He seems shrewd. Anyway, Burnley pressed and pressed and tried to press some more but it did feel like it would be us who got the next goal, if anyone were going to get it, with Adomah and Ledesma running up and down the flanks and the industrious midfield trio of Whitehead, Smallwood and Leadbitter providing a great shield in front of the back-four. Adomah had a good effort that kissed the bar on it’s way out for a corner, Jutkiewicz turned his man and shot wide from a tight angle and Ledesma forced Heaton into a tidy save from twenty-odd yards out. And Curtis Main, on for the knackered Jutkiewicz, almost got on the end of a Leadbitter cross at the death.

Burnley’s best chance came in the last few minutes when they sneaked in behind George Friend and whipped one over towards the back stick; somehow, though, Dean Marney contrived to stick his header over the bar from just a few yards out with Shay Given stranded(I’ll refrain from using the term ‘No Man’s Land’ I think – it’s for the best). And that was that really; there were a few nerves around as the board went up and showed there was to be five extra minutes played but we saw things out with relative ease. The whistle went and we’d made it two straight wins with successive clean-sheets, with Ledesma and Whitehead and Varga and Main all emerging from the shadows to look like important players for us going into the new year. Whitehead seems to have developed a nice little understanding with the ever-industrious Richie Smallwood and long may that continue. And if Curtis Main can add a goal or two to his game we’ve got a proper little striker on our hands there.

But it’s a collective effort. It’s beginning to feel like Karanka’s ideas are coming to fruition; we look more solid, more professional and more productive with and without the ball. Most importantly, though, we look much more organised. The defence isn’t being pulled around at will any more, we aren’t being carved open time and time again and we’re starting to look less ponderous on the ball than we were prior to Karanka taking over. We’ve started to look like a team that knows what it’s doing, both individually and collectively, and it’s been a while, probably a good twelve months or so, since we’ve looked like that. We’ve got Reading, Bolton and Hull in the FA Cup on the horizon and if we perform in those games like we did in this one then we’ll win all three of them without too much fuss before beating Tottenham in fourth round.

Optimism, eh.

Millwall 0 Middlesbrough 2

Trudging around New Cross at 2:30 in the afternoon, in the howling wind and pouring rain, I’d started to have some serious reservations about this one. The sense of excitement that’d been building over the course of the two or three days prior was in grave danger of blowing away and being replaced by a sense of crippling self-doubt; we were cold, ever-so-slightly hungry, we were thirsty, it was too wet for a cigarette, my coat wasn’t waterproof. When we did make our way into the Marquis of Granby, a Millwall supporter stood next to me at the bar and talked of how certain it was we were going batter them because “Millwall never win on telly,” apparently. This was going to be one of those ones where the Boro are 3-0 down at half-time and you contemplate going home early, I thought.

We’d made our way down to The New Den in the driving rain and got settled into our place in the stand. And that’s when I noticed there was no Woodgate, no Leadbitter, no Rhys Williams. Steele and Kamara were also unavailable. That’s half a team missing for a big game at Millwall, a game that, even without these awful conditions, is always going to be something of a war. I mean, let’s be honest about this; the first-half of this one was one of the worst games of football you’re ever likely to see. Two teams incapable of completing even the most basic of tasks, such as passing the ball to a man in the same coloured shirt over a distance of, say, two yards. Instead, both teams concentrated on blasting it up into the air, like we were in competition with each other to see who could play the most stupid long-ball of the half. I lost count of the number of times a centre-half from either side(but particularly Mark Beevers for them) just launched it forwards and straight out for a goal-kick. George Friend was doing it too. It was like watching a bunch of lads larking about in the playground at school, taking turns to see which one of them can get it over the school roof. When we did try and pass it nothing really came off for us; Emnes and Main looked fairly lively, Adomah had a couple of chances to get a run on their left-back but seemed to hesitate and see the chance go begging. The lads were their typical selves really; Whitehead made a good tackle or two but then gave the ball straight back to them, we had a couple of chances to push forwards at pace but turned back and laid the ball off to a full-back before partaking in a spell of knocking it sideways for fun. And then launching it in the general direction of Curtis Main. The local brass band appearing during the half-time interval and belting out a few Christmas classics was a very welcome relief.

Then, completely out of the blue at the start of the second-half, something unexpected happened; we had a shot. A real shot at goal, a shot that hit the target and everything. And not only that but it flew past the outstretched hand of tubby shot-stopper David Forde and nestled in the back of the net via a thwack off the post. Unbelievable! We’d waited all night for a shot and then when we do have one it goes straight in. You couldn’t script it, sometimes. We all celebrated and the players celebrated and Ledesma got booked for taking his shirt off(I think) despite having an almost identical shirt on underneath it. It was complete madness all round at that moment in time. After that we kind of sat back and waited to see what Millwall had to offer but they had absolutely nowt. They didn’t even faff on with it, knock it around between themselves for a while and at least try and look like a football team; they just launched it down the channels and out for goal-kicks and throw-ins, they blasted it in the general direction of McDonald and Morison without giving either of them a real chance of getting on the end of anything and they were slipping and sliding around like Nicky Bailey on a frozen pond. It was truly dire to watch.

We had numerous chances to catch them on the break and score a few more goals but we lacked a bit of composure when and where it mattered. Main almost got his bonce on the end of a flick-on from a corner(he was so frustrated to miss his header that he decided to head the post instead. Twice), Ledesma had a couple of chances to thread something through when we had a man over but made the wrong decision, he even had a chance of chipping the ‘keeper at the death but didn’t execute it properly. Emnes and Adomah caused problems with their pace but we weren’t ruthless with it(much to Marvin’s frustration). Emnes produced some fine moments of exceptional close-control, especially in such poor conditions, but we couldn’t make it count for much. Jacob Butterfield came on and ran about a little bit, which was nice, and Richie Smallwood blazed two efforts way off target. We sealed it at the end, the bitterly cold fag-end of proceedings, when we sent Albert Adomah clean through and he rounded Forde with consummate ease and rolled the ball into an empty net to send the Boro faithful relatively wild. And you’d have to say, despite us being far from vintage, that we deserved the win.

But we are going to face much tougher tests than this one. I’ve seen some awful performances this season; Charlton Athletic, Bolton Wanderers, several Boro performances, but Millwall were in a league of their own when it comes to being absolutely crap. It was a battle we’ve done well to see through to the end and take the points from but I’d be very worried if we hadn’t been able to beat a Millwall side as poor as this one. There were a few genuine plus points for us; Ben Gibson dealt with pretty much everything with the minimum of fuss, Curtis Main worked his backside off and chased anything and everything, Varga did himself no harm at all and has probably guaranteed himself the right-back berth for the next four or five games at least, Richie Smallwood worked incredibly hard, George Friend seemed a bit more solid than usual. But I can’t decorate the truth; it was two pretty poor sides playing pretty poor football in very bad conditions. It just so happened we produced some decent moments and made two of those moments count. Which is all that matters at the end of the day, I suppose, and games like this one are what sums this division up really. We had to grind it out and we did just that.

And that was that. We trudged off in the general direction of South Bermondsey station surrounded by angry Millwall supporters, with most of their annoyance and frustration being aimed in the general direction of manager Steve Lomas. The station looked like India in rush hour, only with more Stone Island jackets, and the atmosphere was one of resignation. Well for them it was, anyway. We were too busy trying to contain our delight by deciding which Vietnamese restaurant to go to. Ah, one last thing would be to say that don’t normally bother with player ratings or man of the match stuff but, in this instance, I’ll finish by presenting an imaginary bottle of champagne to Curtis Main and congratulating him on leading from the front, for never giving up on anything and for giving as good as he got against two pretty agricultural centre-halves there. His attitude rubbed off on the rest of the lads and when you are where we are in the league table it’s things like that that will make a difference for us.

Anyway, onwards and upwards for Burnley…