CRAIG HIGNETT has called on Middlesbrough to end the season on a high, but insists the club is not focusing on a push for the play-offs.
Boro are ten points off the top six with six games to play, having beaten Derby County on Saturday and Brighton and Hove Albion the week before.
The Teessiders host Birmingham City tonight, and for Hignett, the message is simple.
“All we can do is win as many games as we can,” said the assistant head coach, taking media duties in the absence of Aitor Karanka, who was laid low with a bug yesterday.
“We’ll focus on Birmingham, and once that game is out of the way we’ll look at the next one. We want to win as many games from now until the end of the season. That’s our aim, and at the end of the season we’ll take stock of where we are, and we’ll go from there.
“We can’t be complacent. We want to finish the season on a high. Winning at Brighton and beating Derby - two teams that are pushing for something - was a real shot in the arm for us, and should give us confidence going on.
“We’ve had two really good performances, two good victories. Before that we were playing well but we couldn’t get over the line in some games. The last two have been very good but we want to continue that. It’s no good winning one here, one there, we want to improve game by game, so from now until the end of the season we’ll be looking to go on a run.”
If the season started when Karanka took charge on November 13, Middlesbrough would be three points off the play-offs with the best defensive record in the league, and Hignett feels that Boro are in good hands with the Spaniard at the helm.
“He knows exactly what he wants, he’s very focused,” said the former Boro forward, who rejoined the club from Hartlepool United a month ago. “He’s got a right to be like that. He’s proved by the way we play that it does cause teams problems when it is done right.
“He’s a winner and he’s very intense in training. He has his way of playing, and feels that the players within the shape have got freedom to go anywhere and do anything, especially the forward players.
“That has been the difference. The forward players have come in and rotated well, created chances and scored goals. The first goal in a lot of these games is crucial. Score the first goal, tails are up and more often than not you go on to win the games. When you’re not scoring goals there’s a problem. But thankfully we look like we’ve solved that and we can go on a run.
ON TARGET: Loan midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah celebrates after scoring the only goal of the game at the weekend as Boro beat Derby County
“We’ve kept 14 clean sheets in the last 20. If you’re keeping clean sheets, you’ve got every chance of winning football games. That has been the foundation. Aitor has come in, he has got the team defending really well, if we can get the other side right we’ll be in with a shout.”
Birmingham City, relegated from the Premier League in 2011, are nine points below Middlesbrough and seven points away from the drop zone under former Newcastle and Sunderland playmaker Lee Clark. Hignett feels that the Blues are a reminder of how many big teams there are in the second tier.
“You’ve seen the league over the years, it’s notoriously hard,” he said. “I think this is the hardest league to get out of, when you see the league, there’s 14 or 15 teams, maybe more, that have played in the Premier League. It’s a battle. Every week’s a battle.
“You know you’re going to come up against good players, you know you are going to come up against good teams, they’ll work their socks off, they’ll make it difficult for you.
“You look at QPR this season, they’re full of Premier League players and they’re just about in the play-offs. On the other hand, you see Burnley, with a smaller squad who all stick together, they have a way of playing, work really hard for each other and they’re going really well. It’s a difficult league to get out of.
“It’s no guarantee that if you’re a big side and have played in the Premier League, you’ll be there or thereabouts. There are so many sides like that. We’re one, you look at Birmingham, there’s so many of them. You could reel off the full league except for Yeovil. It’s a tough league.”
Middlesbrough’s position in the table could have been even better if not for a seven-game goal drought, which came to an end against Ipswich Town - Hignett’s first game back in the Boro dugout. However, the amiable Liverpudlian is not taking the credit.
“The fact that we’re scoring now has nothing to do with me,” Hignett joked “It’s the first goal. Score first and it gives everybody a lift. Looking at the quality that is here, it probably was a surprise they had gone so long without scoring, because we have some really exciting forward-thinking players, who can turn games.
“Sometimes it just comes down to luck. You look at some of the decisions that have gone against us, the QPR bottle top, the Sheffield Wednesday ‘goal’, the handball from Darius Henderson against Nottingham Forest, and sometimes the world is against you, or it feels that way.
“A goal snaps you out of it. Credit for the lads they never let their heads drop, even when things were going against them. They’ve got a belief that they are good players and they’ve proved that, certainly in the last two games.”