Final Score: Middlesbrough 1 Derby County 0
STEVE McClaren admitted coming back to Middlesbrough for the first time would be a special occasion, but by 5pm on Saturday the Derby County manager couldn’t wait to get away.
McClaren’s first visit to the Riverside as an opposition manager started well when he was introduced and given a standing ovation by the home crowd before kick-off.
It was a fitting reception for the most successful manager in the club’s history, who led the Teesiders to Capital One Cup glory and a UEFA Cup final. However, his return wasn’t as sweet as he would have hoped.
In fact, it was a nightmare day for the former England boss, who was left so frustrated by his side’s performance that he was seen punching a wall as he walked back up the tunnel after completing a couple of post-match interviews pitch side.
McClaren had spoken fondly of his time at the Riverside and at the prospect of coming back during the week, but by the end he was in no mood to be reminiscent.
“It was nice,” the former Boro boss said. “But that was a long time ago. The result and performance has soured it a bit. It’s a case of get out of here quick.”
McClaren enjoyed considerable success on Teesside and the club has failed to hit such heights since he left in 2006, but while the Saturday provoked memories of past Premier League days and European nights, ultimately it was Boro’s present, Aitor Karanka, that came out on top.
Nathaniel Chalobah’s second half strike – his first for the club since arriving from Chelsea on loan in January – meant McClaren was undone by the man that one day hopes to emulate the success he brought to Teesside.
The build-up to this game inevitably centred on McClaren, but by the end it presented more evidence that Boro are beginning to find their feet under Karanka. Progress has been slow and frustrating at times, and there is still plenty of improvement to be made going into next season, but the Teessiders have now lost only one in seven and a strong finish certainly looks on the cards.
That still doesn’t paint over the cracks of a season that has been disappointing overall, but it demonstrated that Boro are capable of competing with the teams at the top even if Derby were out-of-sorts.
There were few clear-cut chances – both teams managed just two attempts on target in 90 minutes – but where Boro have failed on so many occasions they ultimately found a match-winning finish from an unlikely source.
Chalobah has made 13 appearances for Karanka since arriving from Chelsea, but the 19-year-old has rarely found himself in goalscoring positions despite demonstrating an ability to find the net in loan spells at both Watford and Notthingham Forest.
On Saturday, he was given the licence to push forward in a reversal of roles with Grant Leadbitter, who sat in front of the back four, and Chalobah proved that he can be useful going forward with a neat finish after he had collected Emmanuel Ledesma’s cross-field pass inside the box.
The Chelsea youngster will return to Stamford Bridge at the end of the season hoping to put himself in Jose Mourinho’s plans, but until then the midfielder is focused on playing for a club he believes has helped improve his game.
“I’ll let Mourinho make that decision (on my future),” Chalobah said. “We haven’t had a chat yet, we’ll see what happens when I go back and see what he has to say.
“I’m just enjoying it here. This is probably one of the best dressing rooms I’ve been in. All the boys are fantastic.
“For me to come here, especially after the difficult time I had with my previous club, it’s been wonderful for me and I’m really happy to be here and playing my football.
“I’m learning things every week, playing against different opposition every week. For me personally I want to keep adding to my game, adding bits and pieces to try and make me a complete player.
“I’ve just got to keep working hard and keep enjoying it with a smile on my face.
“Since I’ve been here everyone has shown faith in me. All the staff and the manager, and that gives you confidence.
“I was talking to Leo, the goalkeeping coach, and he said that is something I can add to my game. This week we’ve been taking shooting very seriously, so I’m glad it’s paid off.”
Boro remain 11 points off the play-offs with six games left play and while they have had to accept the gap is too wide to close, Chalobah insists there will be no letting up even if there is a temptation to switch off with nothing to play for.
He said: “We knew they were playing for promotion and they’re a good team. We just had to play like we did against Brighton, and it was really important for us to get that result.
“We’re playing for pride, and for the club. We’re playing for ourselves and for everyone who turns up every week to watch us.
“It’s easy to say we’re playing for nothing, but to the players and the backroom staff, and all the people that work in the club, it’s a bit more than that. It still means a lot to the players and the staff.
“It’s important that we finish in a good position, something to take into next season, so we’ve got to kick on towards the end of the season.”