The first blow of the new season was close to home for Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson. There were just 15 seconds on the clock when big Ben Gibson, nephew of the man who masterminded Middlesbrough’s rise from liquidation to the Uefa Cup final, pulled up in a hamstrung state in the home penalty area.
It was a painful setback for the younger Gibson, who has gained England Under-21 honours as a central defender, but an opportunity for one of Boro’s newboys to make an early season mark. Kenneth Omeruo played 14 games on loan for Middlesbrough last term but has been welcomed back as a new signing.
Omeruo is a Chelsea player but his manager at Stamford Bridge is a friend and former colleague of Middlesbrough’s head coach. Aitor Karanka spent three years as Jose Mourinho’s assistant at Real Madrid.
Five weeks ago Omeruo lined up for Nigeria against France in a Round of 16 tie in Brasilia. On that occasion, the tall willowy 20-year-old finished on the losing side, beaten 2-0 in front of a crowd of 67,882.
Birmingham looked like individuals still getting to know one another. Having seen his side escape relegation courtesy of a 93rd minute equaliser by Paul Caddis on the final day at Bolton, Birmingham manager Lee Clark has overhauled his squad and gave starts to five of his 10 new signings. His new-look team were unable to summon a shot on target.
Omeruo could afford to get back into the swing of things at strolling pace. At the other end of the field, Lee Tomlin made his presence felt, striking up an instantly promising partnership in his attacking support role, behind the debutant Spaniard Enrique Garcia.
Tomlin might be on the portly side for a latter day football pro but the former Rushden and Diamonds player had some sparkle about him as he schemed around on the fringes of the Birmingham penalty area. He had already despatched a fine warning shot of a volley across the bows before he played in Garcia behind the Birmingham defence with a deftly angled ball.
Garcia, a £2.8m acquisition from Real Murcia known as “Kike”, flashed his shot wide but Middlesbrough had the attacking momentum that carried them into a 33rd minute lead.
Leadbitter swung over a right-wing corner and Daniel Ayala (pictured, centre), Omeruo’s central defensive partner, scored with a close range header. The only surprise thereafter was that it took Middlesbrough until the 66th minute to put the contest effectively out of Birmingham’s reach, the visiting defence failing to clear a left-wing cross from the impressive Adam Reach and Garcia hooking in the loose ball for a debut day goal.
Kike might have finished with a hat-trick but Boro can wait for a greater return in the department that cost them a play-off place last season. “A marathon is a very long and tough race,” cautioned Karanka, who replaced Tony Mowbray last November. “Today is just the first step.”
Still, it was a good day after all for Steve Gibson. On this evidence, it could be a good season for Middlesbrough and their chairman.
Middlesbrough (4-2-3-1): Mejias; Hines, Ayala, Gibson (Omeruo, 4), Friend; Whitehead, Leadbitter; Adomah (Nsue, 66), Tomlin (Williams, 87), Reach; Garcia.
Birmingham (4-2-3-1): Randolph; Eardley, Hall, Robinson, Grounds; Gleeson, Edgar; Gray, Shinnie (Duffy, 55), Novak; Thomas (Donaldson, 66).
Referee: Graham Salisbury
Man of the match: Tomlin (Middlesbrough)
Match rating: 8/10