AITOR KARANKA pinpointed the exact moment of Middlesbrough’s change in fortunes and is delighted that his side are now looking up rather than down.
Victory against Blackpool on Saturday has moved Boro above the Seasiders, and six points now separates them and the play-off places.
In December, they were three points off the relegation zone in a joint-season low of 19th having succumbed to a late goal at home to Brighton and Hove Albion, but a month on, Boro have banked 13 points out of a possible 15 and, notwithstanding their cup exit last week, are unbeaten in five games.
Following the Albion defeat, Karanka’s anger was there for all to see, that his side had conceded vital late goals to Derby, Birmingham and then Brighton, with the Spaniard opining at the time that it ‘was not possible to continue in this way’.
Tony Mowbray had experienced the same problem, which led to his eventual sacking from the Teessiders, but under Karanka, the message, at last, has seemed to sink in.
“That game was key to the change,” said Karanka after Mustapha Carayol scored a late brace to fire his side to a first victory at Blackpool for nearly 30 years.
“I felt that we needed a big change. We couldn’t continue in that way, losing goals in the last minute, set-pieces, mistakes, and now we are much better and we are winning, which is important.
“It’s important for us to be winning games again. This was a game where we kept a clean sheet and it’s important for the confidence. It was a very difficult pitch, they play with long balls so for us to get the result I’m very happy.”
Karanka surprisingly left out new loan signing Kenneth Omeruo, instead opting to partner Rhys Williams with Dani Ayala in the absence of the ill Jonathan Woodgate and leaving Omeruo out of the matchday squad entirely. Karanka explained: “I think the players who played on Saturday deserved to keep their place.
"Kenneth came with us to get a feeling for the atmosphere in the team. He’s going to be a player for us, he’s going to help us.”
Up until Carayol’s cameo, there was little to suggest that either team would come away with the three points. The Bloomfield Road pitch was not conducive to a particularly pretty brand of football, which seemed a disadvantage to both sides rather than just Middlesbrough.
Under Karanka, Boro have showed that they can mix up their play, and while they are at home playing a slick passing game, if the situation demands they play in a more agricultural manner they have the personnel at hand to execute that plan.
But Saturday’s was a game lacking any redeemable features right up until the 84th minute.
Despite enjoying more of the possession, Blackpool - who were forced to name two youth players on their bench despite playing 60 minutes earlier that day - were reduced to half chances, with Barry Ferguson and Angel Martinez both seeing long-range efforts easily gathered by Shay Given in the opening 45 minutes.
Boro, meanwhile, got closer to goal. Emmanuel Ledesma found Lukas Jutkiewicz who beat the offside trap, and the striker, rather than slotting home, dithered before being dispossessed.
Albert Adomah did similar moments later, with Jack Robinson tackling the Boro winger to clear to safety, before Ledesma was once again in a good position in front of goal, only to scuff his shot into Matt Gilks’ hands.
The second half was a much more attritional affair, low on opportunities and any real quality, but Carayol’s introduction, while not reaping instant success, gave Blackpool a different dimension to deal with and the winger, from a Blackpool corner, swept forward and curled past the goalkeeper.
Boro were moments away from their first victory at Bloomfield Road since 1986-7 season, and the win was cemented three minutes into injury time when Carayol drilled into the top corner in a crowded penalty area.
Middlesbrough's Jozsef Varga takes a tumble at Bloomfield Road
For once, the travelling Middlesbrough support heading across to the Fylde Coast were given something to cheer about, and Karanka - who was the subject of a few of the fans’ chants, which prompted the Spaniard to confer with the bench before acknowledging them - paid tribute to the 2,000 supporters.
“I was very proud to hear that,” said Karanka. “But for me, it’s simple. The most important moment came at the beginning when we were losing, but the support was still there. When the results were not good they were always with me.”
Karanka refused to get carried away with his side’s good form, although he pointed out that things are a lot easier to manage than it was when he first arrived.
“I said from the beginning that my philosophy is always focus on the next game,” said Karanka. “When we were three points away from the relegation positions I said that the most important game was the next one. This is my philosophy.
“I feel a lot better about things than I did at the beginning. Now, we’re in a much better position, but my feelings and thoughts are the same. You can win every game, you can lose every game. You need to work hard on the training ground right up until the last second.
“We are looking to bring players in but I am very happy, the players are training well, their attitude is 100% and for that I am very happy.”