Simon Hart: Middlesbrough striker Kike Garcia blends Spanish influence to turn the tide at the Riverside

Life Beyond the Premier League: The Boro boss has adapted to the 'tough rhythm' of the Championship with six goals

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It is a measure of the impact made by Aitor Karanka in his 12 months as Middlesbrough manager that an article in the local Evening Gazette this week likened the current buzz around the club to the heady optimism of the Bryan Robson era.

If that mid-Nineties period was defined by the audacious swoop for the much-loved Brazilian Juninho, today’s Boro have a Spanish flavour and not just for the presence of Karanka, the former Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid defender.

It was to Spain in July that Karanka returned to make the most expensive of his seven summer signings, striker Kike Garcia, who joined from Real Murcia for an estimated £2.7m. Kike had just hit 23 goals in the Spanish Second Division and Karanka persuaded him to choose the Riverside ahead of several top-flight teams at home.

“My decision to come to Boro was largely down to him,” Kike tells The Independent. “He spoke to me and told me everything – his desire to do well and the ambition of the club.”

The pair had worked together at the Under-20 World Cup in 2009 – where Karanka, later Jose Mourinho’s No 2 in Madrid, was Spain’s assistant coach – and so the Basque will have known that Kike had a game suited to English football.

If Ayoze Perez, another player plucked from Spain’s second tier, has caught the eye up the road at Newcastle with his movement and awareness, Kike has sturdier qualities. “I like to hold the ball up,” says the powerful, 24-year-old spearhead of Karanka’s 4-2-3-1 system. “I think I’ve fitted in well. I’ve got six goals but I could have had a few more.”

He admits that the “tough rhythm” of the Championship has been a challenge – “You come off on a Saturday and don’t even have time to celebrate or think about the game as three days later you’ve another one” – and, despite Karanka’s rotation policy, the manager’s demands mean the intensity seldom drops. “He is very demanding on the training pitch and in matches,” Kike says. “As a player he gets the best out of you. He wants to do things well [and] achieve what everyone around the club is hoping for this year.”

That target is promotion. When Karanka replaced Tony Mowbray last November, Boro had 16 points from 15 games; a year on they have 31 from 17 and sit third in the Championship, a point below the leaders Derby.

Although Karanka offloaded 11 players in the summer, he recruited wisely and Boro now have “a lot of options up front”, according to Kike – including Chelsea loanee Patrick Bamford, who has four goals, and the home-grown England Under-20 winger Adam Reach. The fact that midfielder Grant Leadbitter, with eight goals, is their top scorer underlines that this is very much a team effort.

Tomorrow a buoyant Boro will take 4,800 fans to Wigan, which as Kike notes is not too far off the average attendance at his old club Murcia. “When we played the play-off to get into the First Division, there were around 14,000,” he says, “but over the season the home gates would be seven or eight thousand. Here the fans get behind you more.”

Last season his promotion hopes crumbled with a play-off semi-final loss to Cordoba, and Murcia ended up demoted to the Third Division because of an unpaid tax bill. He is hoping for a happier ending with Boro.

“We gave it everything and it really hurt,” Kike admits, “but I am in a different team now and it would be tremendous for me. Let’s hope things work out and we do go up and get the club back where it should be.”

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