FRIEND: Spirit is the key to Boro suc­cess

Ge­orge and Co are learn­ing from last sea­son’s heartache

The Football League Paper - - FRONT PAGE - By Alex Narey

GE­ORGE Friend says Mid­dles­brough’s col­lec­tive spirit – from both the play­ing staff and fans – has been key to the club’s march to the Cham­pi­onship sum­mit.

Boro, who flirted with the au­to­matic pro­mo­tion spots last sea­son be­fore los­ing out to Nor­wich in a one-sided play-off fi­nal, have stepped up the pres­sure on their ri­vals in re­cent weeks.

A 1-0 win at Brent­ford in mid­week com­pleted their ninth con­sec­u­tive clean sheet – equalling a se­cond-tier record held by Chelsea in 1905 and Leeds United in 1928.

They’d also won five on the bounce be­fore yes­ter­day’s ag­o­nis­ing last-gasp de­feat at Bris­tol City stopped them break­ing the record and saw their lead at the top cut to two points.

But the at­tack­ing full-back, an al­most ever-present in Boro’s line-up this sea­son, was quick to di­vert at­ten­tion away from Ai­tor Karanka’s de­fence.

Speak­ing be­fore the Bris­tol City set­back, he said:“The clean sheets and the de­fend­ers have been get­ting a lot of plau­dits, but it’s not just about de­fend­ing.

“Ev­ery player works un­be­liev­ably hard, and we pride the clean sheets on the whole team work­ing to­gether as a unit. Good or­gan­i­sa­tion comes down to each player know­ing their role.

“Off the pitch we are all very close; we get on very well, and when we step over that line and onto the pitch, we know who­ever is play­ing can do a job for us.

“There are no con­cerns over cover, and that just gives us so much con­fi­dence. Ev­ery player in the squad is needed and val­ued.”

As well as his fel­low play­ers, Friend heaped praise on Boro’s army of fans who have fol­lowed them this sea­son. On Tues­day night, they packed Brent­ford’s Brook Road Stand with over 1,600 mak­ing the trip to west Lon­don, while yes­ter­day’s visit to face Bris­tol City was also a sell-out.

Speak­ing af­ter Boro’s vic­tory at Grif­fin Park, Friend joked:“It’s a Tues­day night in Brent­ford. Most of the guys are in work to­mor­row. It’s cold. It’s windy. It’s rain­ing. But they are all here fill­ing the away end.

In­cred­i­ble

“It’s in­cred­i­ble how they get around the coun­try and sup­port us, and I can tell you that ev­ery player re­ally ap­pre­ci­ates it.”

Af­ter strug­gling to see games off last sea­son that their pos­ses­sion sug­gested they should have won, Boro are now reap­ing the re­wards for hav­ing the most miserly back four in the coun­try, com­bined with an at­tack­ing line that is su­perbly led by Ste­wart Down­ing and Cristhian Stu­ani.

And Friend, who joined the Teesside out­fit from Don­caster Rovers in 2012, says the sum­mer ad­di­tions have given Karanka’s men more be­lief to kill off the op­po­si­tion.

“The play­ers who were here last sea­son have taken the ups and downs of the cam­paign and have taken the ex­pe­ri­ence of los­ing the play-off fi­nal and get­ting so close,” said the 28-yearold. “But the new guys who have come in have added some real qual­ity. Ev­ery­one has just gelled re­ally well.

“We play ev­ery game to win. There is dis­ap­point­ment when we draw and it is ab­so­lutely gut­ting when you lose, be­cause you get noth­ing for the ef­forts you put in dur­ing the game and dur­ing train­ing.

“That’s the way this side plays; we never set out to look for just a point. It’s a dan­ger­ous thing to do.”

Friend re­mains keen to play down the club’s pro­mo­tion chances – with many pun­dits hav­ing them nailed on for a Premier League spot next term.

“We ap­pre­ci­ate the po­si­tion we are in, but we are half­way through the sea­son,” he said.“This is the busi­ness end now and last year we came up just short. We don’t want to be re­ly­ing on other re­sults to see us home. It’s in our hands, but there’s a long way to go.”

PIC: Ac­tion Im­ages

DAN THE MAN: Mid­dles­brough’s Daniel Ayala makes sure the win­ning goal gets over the line at Brent­ford in mid­week

KEY MAN: Ge­orge Friend has been a big part of Boro’s miserly de­fence this sea­son

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