Callum Connolly looks ahead to the first of the Championship play-off semi-finals tonight, as Brentford host Middlesbrough in the first leg.
“Tiny details can be big things.”
Aitor Karanka’s words could not be truer when pinpointing the transformation in Middlesbrough over the last 18 months. Certainly, fans of the club would have predicted a bleak future following the sacking of Tony Mowbray in October 2013.
Mowbray had left the club he had once captained with just two wins from a possible twelve. The job was hardly an inviting one for available managers as, undoubtedly, Middlesbrough are a big club with a big history, but the task at hand for the new man in town would be of a mammoth size.
Fortunately, Steve Gibson, the club chairman had links with agent Jorge Mendes and former Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon. Partly through their aid, Gibson persuaded Champions League winner and former assistant of one Jose Mourinho, Aitor Karanka, to take the reins and rejuvenate this sleeping giant.
Karanka already possessed vast coaching experience after a spell in charge of the Spanish under-16 squad, as well as his time with Los Blancos in Madrid. Karanka’s referees are people his fellow Championship managers could only dream of including in their managerial C.V.
Speaking to The Guardian on how Jose Mourinho chose him, the former Real centre-half said Clarence Seedorf and Luis Figo had offered words of support. Karanka also took his coaching licences with Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino. Friends in high places already established for a man who was embarking in his first post as first team manager.
Karanka stabilized Boro in his first season, leading the club to a twelfth-place finish, with the January signings of Lee Tomlin and Daniel Ayala adding strength in depth.
This year, 22-year-old Ben Gibson has had an outstanding campaign. The centre-back was part of a concrete back four that conceded just eleven home goals in the entire season. Gibson, who is a lifelong fan, also plays for former Middlesbrough player and manager Gareth Southgate in the England under-21s, and is set to compete in this summer’s European Championships.
In midfield, captain Grant Leadbitter is the ferocious driving force. Known for his crunching tackles, speculative efforts, and his dominance in the centre of the park; this has earned him a prestigious position in the PFA Championship Team of the Year, alongside popular left-back George Friend.
However, the key to Middlesbrough’s meteoric rise from mid-table mediocrities to promotion chasers, is Patrick Bamford. One of four loanees from Chelsea, Bamford’s exquisite composure, skill and quality in the final third is what has essentially granted Middlesbrough the chance to return to the Premier League after six years’ absence.
The Championship Player of the Year was captured by Chelsea as a sixteen-year-old from Nottingham Forest, and has enjoyed outstanding spells at MK Dons and Derby County. Bamford is also the first player at the club since Mark Viduka in 2006/07 to score 19 goals in all competitions in a season. His experience with the Rams in last season’s play-offs could be vital.
The opposition Karanka and Middlesbrough face on Friday will be Mark Warburton’s Brentford. Despite leading the Bees to the Championship for the first time in 21 years, owner Matthew Benham and Warburton mutually decided to part ways, after the latter disagreed with Benham’s future plans for the club.
Regardless of the outcome in Brentford’s play-off campaign – in which they pipped last year’s finalists Derby and Wolves to a spot on another dramatic final day – Warburton will still be relieved of his duties.
Warburton, like Karanka, is an interesting character. Once a banker, he told Four Four Two why he had to give up his day job after coming across a billion-pound deal in the City of London.
“There was this huge deal in front of me, and all I could think about were the passing drills I was going to do that evening with my under-10s team.”
One of the three men behind the popular NextGen series (an under-19 tournament for European clubs) Warburton visited every footballing paradise from Ajax, to Inter, to Barcelona, in an effort to hone his coaching skills before taking a part-time mantle at Watford. Benham then asked for Warburton to assist at Brentford. The rest, as they say, is history.
Whilst Middlesbrough work from a solid back four, Brentford favour an attacking style, using the increasingly popular 4-1-4-1 formation. Only play-off favourites Norwich have scored more than Brentford, who have netted 78 goals this season because of their expansive approach. However, their defence are at times suspect, paying the iron price for Warburton’s style, with 59 goals conceded.
Alex Pritchard, if managed well, will become one of England’s finest attackers and may even make the World Cup squad for Russia 2018, such is his precocious talent. The 22-year-old excelled for Swindon in League One last year, making his Premier League debut towards the end of the season for his current club, Tottenham, after his loan had come to an end.
Brentford beat a host of clubs to house the midfielder. According to Squakwa, Pritchard has scored twelve, assisted in seven goals, and created 109 chances, the third most in the entire division.
His team-mate, Jota, has been a revelation since his £1 million arrival from Celta Vigo in the summer and his contribution of eleven goals has attracted the attention of the Premier League.
Andre Gray’s remarkable step-up from Conference football with Luton to Championship level has been astounding, following his summer move. Alan Judge has Warburton to thank for revitalising his career after his permanent arrival at Griffin Park being earned following his loan aid in promotion the previous season. If you want goals, Griffin Park is the place to be.
Middlesbrough return from warm weather training in the Costa del Sol this week, minds focused on the upcoming mission. A coveted place in the Premier League is what Karanka and his players desperately desire, but it is the fans who deserve it most. With the financial issues in the 1980s a sore memory for older supporters, a pain they all share is the six seasons spent outside the top flight.
For Brentford, it is a win-win situation. Despite being the underdog for this tie, the experience will be an enriching one. Either way, Brentford will go on without Warburton, who will surely attract attention from a team in need of a leader.
Let the battle commence…
Callum Connolly, Pundit Arena