After a dramatic week off the pitch, it’s time for a tough match on it. Reading head north on Saturday to third-placed Middlesbrough, an in-form side hunting down Sheffield United in second place.
It’s been quite the turnaround for Boro since the reverse fixture, a 1-0 home win which left Chris Wilder’s side 23rd in the Championship. After that however, under the management of Michael Carrick, Middlesbrough have won 13, drawn once and lost four times, propelling themselves from relegation candidates in late October to promotion chasers.
How would you sum up the season so far?
A concoction of all-sorts. We’ve had hope, confusion, disappointment, apathy and newfound optimism. So basically, just another season supporting a Championship club.
How's Michael Carrick getting on in the dugout?
Better than I could have ever expected. When he came in it was the birth of a new Boro, like Rafiki holding Simba up to the masses in The Lion King, but the Championship is a vicious beast and I thought we would see more teething issues than we have. He has knitted things together really nicely on and off the pitch, never giving too much away to the press which must be a nightmare for those journos who pride themselves on a show-stopping headline.
That particular point, about his approach to the media, is really important. He has a certain calmness that reflects the type of personality he was when he was in the position of the players he’s coaching. We’ve not had a sustained run of defeats - which may well happen at any point - but given how good an environment it seems to be at Middlesbrough right now, I just can’t see where or when that happens.
What are the main strengths of this Boro side?
Definitely fluidity in positioning. We set up in a 4-2-3-1 but we are not bound to that. Riley McGree will come central to pick up pockets between the lines, giving Ryan Giles the freedom of the left-hand side, and we’ll also see Chuba Akpom dropping deep to receive.
Even defensively, you’ll see Tommy Smith bombing forward, but also tucking in as a right-sided centre half when needed. We are hitting all the right notes with that more times than not. And of course, it helps when you have the division’s top goalscorer.
I love seeing us playing out from the back, I really do, and that’s the philosophy Michael Carrick has with this Middlesbrough team, but it can be a weakness for any side when the opposition gets the press right.
Burnley probably aren’t a great example here because, well, look at them, but they got the press spot on when we visited Turf Moor. They man-marked the central areas and made sure their wide players defended the flanks to nullify that build-out option as well. It was tough for us and we played into their hands.
I do expect you to defend in quite a low block, and that’s what West Brom did to us on Saturday. For them, it worked a treat. For us, we struggled to break them down. I don’t expect that to be an issue for two games on the trot (if it is, then I may start to get worried), but there is every possibility it could happen again.
How do you see the rest of the season playing out for you?
I think there’s a very likely chance that we’ll finish the season in the top six. It would take something very unfortunate for us to drop out of it. What happens from there is anyone’s guess. I would love to go to Wembley again for a Championship play-off final and redeem the 2015 defeat we had against Norwich. Top two still isn’t out of the question though!
How will the game go on Saturday and what will the score be?
I think it’ll be a game that places importance on trust and patience for us. We have the individual and collective quality to get the job done, and I know Reading’s away form is dire. I do think there will be a goal in it for the Royals but Boro’s fortunes at the Riverside are rosy again, so I’m going for a 2-1 home victory.