Aitor Karanka: Middlesbrough out to keep club in top flight after promotion

By Matt NewsumBBC Sport at the Riverside Stadium
Middlesbrough celebrate
Middlesbrough are back in the Premier League for the first time since 2009

Middlesbrough head coach Aitor Karanka has set his sights on emulating Bournemouth and Watford following his side's return to the Premier League.

Boro sealed their return to the top flight after a seven-year absence on goal difference after Saturday's draw with promotion rivals Brighton.

Now, like the Cherries and the Hornets, Karanka wants to keep them there.

"It's my following aim. I said when I arrived, Middlesbrough are a Premier League team," said Karanka.

"Now we're going to work harder to stay in there like good examples such as Watford or Bournemouth."

Boro's inspiration

Middlesbrough fan celebrates
Boro's fans have seen their team only lose twice at home in the league this season

There have been some gloomy times on Teesside since Boro last played in the top tier.

But under Karanka the old buzz, that saw the club win the League Cup in 2004 and reach the Uefa Cup final two years later, has filtered back.

Major job losses at the local steel plant in Redcar and the death of a favourite in BBC Tees commentator Ali Brownlee - whose name was chanted throughout and at the end of the game - hit the town hard but the football club has provided a relief.

The plight of the workers and Brownlee's loss also had an impact on Karanka and his players.

"I know what a difficult moment they [the steelworkers] are living and this moment is really nice for them, and the other was our friend Ali," he said.

"He was supporting us, he's been supporting us since his last day and he supported me since I arrived here.

"For me it means more to the fans. The people of this area deserve to enjoy it, for them to have a team and a club where everyone is so proud."

The supportive chairman

Steve Gibson celebrates
Middlesbrough owner Steve Gibson was part of a consortium that saved the club from liquidation in 1986

Steve Gibson, long-time chairman and fan of the Teesside club, played a key role in bringing Karanka to the Riverside and in turn in keeping him there.

His financing of the Boro squad has been a pivotal factor in their success, trusting big money to the Spaniard to sign players including forwards Jordan Rhodes, David Nugent and Cristhian Stuani, as well as Gaston Ramirez on loan from Southampton.

It was also Gibson who persuaded Karanka back to the club after a reported fall out earlier in the season, prompting genuine gratitude from the Boro head coach.

"I say thanks to the chairman for giving the opportunity to come here when I didn't have experience," Karanka added.

"I am looking forward to giving him a really big hug like he deserves."

The leader: Grant Leadbitter

Aitor Karanka and Grant Leadbitter
Captain Grant Leadbitter joined Middlesbrough from Ipswich in May 2012

One of the pivots for Middlesbrough during their promotion campaign has been captain Grant Leadbitter, a County Durham lad who along with Adam Clayton has been the anchor to a steely midfield and watertight defence.

The skipper got his hands on silverware as Boro celebrated before the Riverside faithful, and later revealed he had been playing with injections before a hernia operation which will take place next week.

"Grant is the character of this team," Karanka said. "He's the captain and nobody knows how much he has suffered to play the last three or four weeks with a lot of pain.

"He has character, players like him and follow him. That is why we're in the Premier League."

'I need time to rest'

Promotion is the culmination of two and a half successful years at the Riverside for the Spaniard, who picked up the reins from club legend Tony Mowbray and created his own place in Boro folklore.

"I couldn't sleep the last however many days, so today is a good day to enjoy and say how proud I am being here with these players and this crowd," said Karanka.

"Tomorrow we are going to disappear [as a family]! I don't know where, I need a lot of time to rest because the last two and a half years have been tough with changing everything.

"We have two months until pre-season so first I'm going to enjoy this with my family like they deserve."

Not over yet for Brighton

Brighton were unable to pick up the win they needed in front of 2,570 travelling fans at the Riverside, despite Dale Stephens' header cancelling out Stuani's opener.

However, the midfielder's dismissal for a foul on Gaston Ramirez shortly after left the Seagulls down to 10 men and unable to press Boro as they might have wished, leaving them to battle it out in the Championship play-offs.

"I'm very proud of a group of players that were able to put the performance in here," manager Chris Hughton said.

"We absolutely know we don't have time to be too down about it.

"It's a distraught changing room and you want them to feel that way because you know what it means to them."

Sheffield Wednesday provide the opposition in the play-off semi-finals, with the home leg at the Amex Stadium a week on Monday following Friday's trip to Hillsborough.

"We've got to make sure we take a respectable scoreline back to the Amex because Sheffield Wednesday are a very good team," Hughton added. "They've got good momentum at the moment and get big crowds.

"It's a formidable place to go so we need to take a good result back. Whichever way we'll have a wonderful atmosphere at the Amex and that will help."

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