AS Middlesbrough prepare to embark on a busy festive period against Derby County tomorrow night, defender Jonathan Woodgate believes the next four weeks could determine how his side fair in the second half of the season.
Boro travel to Pride Park to face Steve McLaren’s team and it marks the first of a grueling six-game run over the next four weeks.
Aitor Karanka’s men go to the East Midlands with a renewed sense of optimism following Saturday’s 1-0 win over Bolton Wanderers, which was their first victory since the Spaniard’s arrival last month.
Boro face four teams who currently occupy the top ten during December in Burnley, Reading, Derby and Brighton, while they also face tricky trips to Birmingham and Millwall over the next two weekends respectively.
But Woodgate insists the squad is relishing a string of games in quick succession and believes it offers the chance to gain some momentum under their new manager. The Teessiders haven’t won back-to-back league games since December 2012 and the Boro captain admits that needs to change.
“Momentum is a vital thing in this league,” Woodgate said. “We need to try and gain some over the next four weeks and build on this win. There’re six games and it could really shape our season.
“We’ve started it with a win against Bolton and now we’ve got to finish it. We’ve got a busy Christmas period with six games in December. Saturday was the start and now we need to push on.”
Middlesbrough had to wait until the final ten minutes to get a breakthrough against Dougie Freedman’s side, who frustrated Karanka’s side by getting as many men behind the ball as possible.
That is a tactic many teams have successfully adopted at the Riverside over the last year and with a bumper crowd present on Saturday, Woodgate admits getting the win was vital.
He said: “A lot of the teams that have come to the Riverside this season have sat behind the ball. It’s hard to break them down and we need to play with a bit more intensity but we got the win, which is the most important thing and the clean sheet.
“It’s vital to win as quickly as possible when a new manager comes in. It gets the monkey off the back, especially at home. It wasn’t an easy game and they defended well but we managed to get through in the end.
“It was vital we got a win in front of the fans and we have to thank them all for coming out. It’s hard to come to every game. They came and they got behind us and it does help when you’ve got them on your side. They’ve stayed with us when times have been hard and hopefully they will do that for the rest of the season.
“The crowd stayed with us when it was getting a little frustrating. A lot of teams have come here and got behind the ball and that almost paid off for Bolton.”
Boro face the league’s in-form team tomorrow night with Derby having lost only one of their last eight games. Former Boro boss McLaren has galvanized the Rams squad and Woodgate knows his side face a tough test against their former manager.
“I said to some of the boys that when Steve McLaren became their manager they would be a force to be reckoned with because he’s a good manager,” said Woodgate.
“He was successful here and they’ll be a good test for us. Then we go onto Birmingham which will be another hard game but there is games there we can get points from.”
Derby are also the league’s highest scorers, but buoyed by their clean sheet on Saturday, central defender Woodgate believes things are a lot tighter at the back.
There have already been signs of Karanka’s preferred style in the two games he had overseen since taking over, but Woodgate insists it will be a lot longer before supporters see the full effects of playing under a new manager.
He said: “Things don’t happen overnight. The manager has only signed one player. It’s hard for him to come in and make changes straight away but I’m sure with the training we’re doing it will pay off.
“It gives you a boost as a defensive unit to keep a clean sheet. We’ve worked on being compact as a back four and it paid off. We need to do that away from home now. “The manager has given us plenty of messages we just need to apply them a bit better with a bit more intensity when we lose the ball and play a bit quicker.”