7:00am Monday 25th November 2013
By Scott Wilson
HIS first taste of leading Middlesbrough might have ended in disappointment, but Aitor Karanka claims to have seen enough positive signs in Saturday's 2-1 defeat at Leeds to convince him that better times lie ahead.
Boro looked to be heading for a heavy defeat when the concession of a first-half goal to Ross McCormack was compounded by the loss of goalkeeper Jason Steele to a straight red card shortly before the interval.
Steele's dismissal was a controversial one, with Dexter Blackstock heading away from goal as he was felled outside the area, but Boro's ten men refused to let their heads drop in the second half and even threatened to claim an unlikely point when Mustapha Carayol converted an equaliser from Albert Adomah's cross.
Jason Pearce's 57th-minute header ensured Boro ultimately suffered their fifth away defeat of the campaign, but Karanka was nevertheless encouraged by his players' response to a difficult situation.
“One part of me is sad about the score and certain mistakes that I could see in the game, particularly in the first half,” said the Middlesbrough head coach. “But another part of me is happy because my team continued to fight until the very last minute even though we had one player less.
“They were fighting like a team, and because of that, I was happy. These things have given me more energy to move on.
“I am encouraged by parts of the game. The most important thing that a coach can see from his team is a good attitude, and I saw that from my players.
“I have that attitude in my team. The other things, we can train and work on. We can build and improve. But you need the right attitude and with that, I am confident we will go up (the table).”
Karanka made only minimal changes to the side that Mark Venus fielded in his final game as caretaker manager, with the 4-2-3-1 formation that Boro have fielded in recent matches likely to stay.
The Spaniard wants his side to play a high-intensity pressing and passing game, and while Steele's dismissal meant they were always going to be on the back foot in the second half, there were a handful of counter-attacks that hinted at the type of approach that might be adopted in Boro's away games for the remainder of the season.
“Some of the type of game they played was the type of game I wanted and imagined,” said Karanka. “I thought we played better with ten players, and that (the style) is the way I want us to play in the future.
“I think the players listened to what I wanted from them, and that is good. I didn't see that for the whole of the game, but there were times when the signs were good and we have only had ten days together.”
Prior to Saturday, Karanka's last involvement on the touchline had seen him working alongside Jose Mourinho in an assistant manager role at Real Madrid.
Mourinho spent most of last week berating the standard of English refereeing, and hinting at a string of potential conspiracies after referees' boss Mike Riley apologised to West Brom manager Steve Clarke for Andre Marriner's mistake in a recent Premier League game at Stamford Bridge.
Steele's dismissal on Saturday gave Karanka an early opportunity to vent his spleen at referee Phil Gibbs, but his reaction to the game-altering incident was both measured and restrained.
“It doesn't matter now,” he said. “The ball was moving in the opposite direction (away from goal), but he still gave a red card, but I would rather think in a positive way than talk about the decision. I was pleased with the way my team fought together in the second half.”
Boro were already a goal behind when Steele was dismissed, with Leeds' 35th-minute opener coming courtesy of the game's most impressive performer, Ross McCormack.
There was a degree of inevitability to the Scotsman's strike given that Boro had three bids for him rejected in the summer, the last of which was worth around £2m.
Brian McDermott repeatedly urged Leeds' board not to sell the striker, and regards McCormack's fine run of form since – Saturday's goal was his 13th of the season – as a vindication of his stance.
“I wanted him to stay all along,” said McDermott. “And even when the bids were coming in, he always said he wanted to be a Leeds United player.
“It could have been a number of clubs that came in for him, but he was always very strong in his resolve to stay here.
“You have to give the board credit. They kept him, even though it was a decent amount of money. We are getting our reward for that now.”
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