Boro’s cool Spa­niard opt­ed­for­cold­turkey

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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,

have fi­nally ap­pointed man­ager in a new

Slav­isa Jokanovic. least he was Still, at

worth the wait. “He wants us to be we are more ag­gres­sive when

de­fend­ing, to tackle said mid­fielder and be tougher,”

Sakari Mat­tila. “He to get in their face wants us

and press the ball He’s brought in the quicker.

tough man side.” Yes, that’s right folks. spent Ful­ham have

two months and count­less thou­sands,

only to end up with whose a bloke

big idea is say­ing ‘Get stuck in lads’. Top



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.

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