As more than 33,000 people bounced out of the Riverside Stadium, Aitor Karanka stood, caught somewhere between ecstasy and exhaustion, and spoke about a pitch, as a player, he never graced: Wembley.
Boro had just beaten Brentford in the Championship play-off semi-final to send the Teesside club into the “richest game on the planet” – tomorrow’s showdown with Norwich City for a multi-million pound place in next season’s Premier League.
And though Karanka was part of three Real Madrid Champions League-winning teams, won La Liga and played for Spain, Middlesbrough’s manager of 18 months says: “Wembley still has the magic. I won the Champions League but I never played at Wembley.”
In fact, he revealed, he has been to Wembley only once in his 41 years – to see an FA disciplinary panel after he was sent to the stands against Blackburn earlier this season. “I’ve not been for a match, no,” Karanka confirms. “I had to go for a hearing when I was sent off in December. It wasn’t a good reason for me to be there, but when I looked at the pitch I dreamed of one day playing there – well, to be involved. It’s not the only thing I missed [in my career] but it was a pity for me. I wanted the Wembley opportunity, the players have given me the opportunity – not to play, but to live one game there.”
Karanka, who was once Jose Mourinho’s assistant at Real Madrid, succeeded Tony Mowbray in November 2013. His first game in charge was a 2-1 defeat at Leeds that left Middlesbrough 18th in the Championship. Following a 1-0 home defeat to Brighton a month later in front of 13,000 – 20,000 fewer than saw Brentford – Boro were 19th and Karanka was questioning his decision to leave Spain.
“When we lost against Brighton, the first person who said to me, ‘Don’t worry, keep going, I trust you’, was [chairman] Steve Gibson,” Karanka adds. “I felt since my first meeting with him that this place was the right place for me.”
Gibson and Karanka share mutual faith and esteem. Gibson has been at the club since the 1980s and has seen Boro’s four previous visits to Wembley – none of which have been victorious. But, as with Brentford, Boro have beaten Norwich home and away this season, though as inspirational captain Grant Leadbitter says: “That means nothing, if anything they’ll want to put it right. The pressure’s on them. Last season they were a Premier League team.”
Indeed, Norwich were 13th in the Premier League as recently as last March. Chris Hughton was the manager, but a collapse in the last seven games saw Neil Adams replace Hughton and the Championship replace the top flight.
Adams was given until this January when, with Norwich seventh in the table, in came Alex Neil from Hamilton. The 33 year-old Scot has overseen an impressive run – 14 wins and three losses in 22 games – and then a play- off victory over neighbours Ipswich. One of those three defeats was at home to Boro, after which there was some dug-out niggle.
Neil, also aware of Wembley’s status, has taken his players there this week to acclimatise, and Leadbitter, a former Ipswich player, acknowledges that there is pressure on Boro, too – specifically the first team, as the club’s Under-18s and Under-21s have won their respective leagues.
“The manager’s brought a mentality to the football club of winning,” the 29-year-old midfielder says. “That’s instilled right the way through. The club’s in a really good position, but we want it to be in a better position come Monday night.”
In answer to the oft-quoted line about Boro being a Premier League club in all but name, Leadbitter says: “It annoys me when people say that because we’re not a Premier League club. We’ve got great facilities but we’re not a Premier League club. It’s up to us as players to get us back. It’s only a good season if we get promoted.”
Sunderland-born, Leadbitter has his own Wembley history. He was at the stadium to see Sunderland lose the 1992 FA Cup final and then, six years later, to see Sunderland lose 7-6 on penalties as Charlton were promoted to the top flight in a play-off final epic.
Leadbitter just happens to be Boro’s penalty-taker – he has scored eight this season. He practises every day. “It’s worked so far,” he says.
Middlesbrough v Norwich is on Sky Sports 1 on Monday, KO 3pmReuse content