Boro’s cool Spaniard optedforcoldturkey
IN the blistering heat of a Seville summer, Daniel Ayala mucked out the turkey stalls and tried to sweat away the painful memories of his worst day in a Middlesbrough shirt. Two months earlier, on a far murkier day at Wembley, Ayala’s blunder had gifted Norwich striker Cameron Jerome an early goal in the Championship play-off final.
Moments later, it was 2-0 and Boro, pacesetters for so long, never recovered. A place in the Premier League, and that £90m windfall, had gone.
That Ayala should be the man to shoulder the responsibility was the cruellest of jokes.
The classy bedrock of the Championship’s meanest defence, he’d been immaculate all season. Nor was the Spaniard the only man at fault.
Manager Aitor Karanka had ordered the team bus to arrive at Wembley just 50 minutes before kick-off.
Intended to minimise prematch nerves, it actually left Boro’s players under-prepared. Then there was the seasonlong lack of firepower, an issue masked by Patrick Bamford’s goalscoring prowess. Boro did not create enough chances to overwhelm modest opponents, let alone come back from two down in a cauldron.
Yet Ayala didn’t see it like that.“I know the whole team must take responsibility whatever the result, but I was beating myself up about my own mistakes,” he said.
“I kept thinking ‘If I’d done things differently we would
all be Premier League players now’. I thought of all the things I could have done better. About the people I’d let down. For a few weeks, it was very hard.”
Which is why he retreated to his parents’ farm in Andalucia, helping his dad tend the livestock and his mum bottle home-made olive oil.
For a while,it didn’t help.The thoughts kept swirling. But, after a month of back-breaking work that rendered pre-season irrelevant, Ayala’s devastation hardened into determination. No more errors. No more lapses.
And the man who returned is, without question, the Championship’s finest centrehalf.The 26-year-old is like a destructive version of Mesut Ozil or Zinedine Zidane, strolling through games with effortless grace while others sweat and toil.
Rarely does he go to ground or scramble a challenge, relying instead on anticipation and positioning. Chris Martin is as crafty as they come, but the Derby striker never got a kick – or indeed a free-kick – in last weekend’s 2-0 defeat at the Riverside.
Ayala was everywhere he wanted to be, implacably standing guard like some kind of Beefeater in boots.
That calm assurance has rubbed off on young partner Ben Gibson too. Boro have lost just two of the 42 games the pair have started over the last two seasons – and none this term. In a division renowned for its openness and inconsistency, that is a remarkable record.
Gibson deserves his share of the credit, as do full-backs George Friend and Tamas Kalas.You don’t go 726 minutes without conceding, thanks to one lanky Spaniard. AFTER the longest manhunt since Stanley sought Fulham Livingstone,
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But Ayala is the glue that holds it together. He’s a man reaching his peak after nine years in England and false starts at Liverpool and Norwich.
“He has been here so long I actually think of him as English,” said Karanka. We all know the Championship player of the year will be a striker. It was in all but one of of the past six seasons. You have to go all the back to 2006 and Phil Jagielka for the last – and only – time a defender won the award. Kicking and heading just ain’t glamorous enough to garner votes.
But, if there is any justice, Ayala will walk away with the prize for a story of redemption and relentless excellence that – if standards are maintained – will end with promotion to the Premier League. And this time, Ayala can return to the family farm with a head full of dreams and a glittering gong for the mantlepiece.