Friday 19 January 2018

Boro seal place in top flight and £200m prize

Middlesbrough 1 Brighton1

Middlesbrough's Grant Leadbitter and manager Aitor Karanka celebrate with the trophy after being promoted to the Barclays Premier League. Photo: Craig Brough/Reuters
Middlesbrough's Grant Leadbitter and manager Aitor Karanka celebrate with the trophy after being promoted to the Barclays Premier League. Photo: Craig Brough/Reuters
Brighton's Connor Goldson challenges Middlesbrough's Gaston Ramirez (right) during the match at the Riverside Stadium. Photo: Ryan Browne/PA
Middlesbrough's Cristhian Stuani challenges Brighton's Jamie Murphy during the match. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters
Middlesbrough's Ben Gibson in action at The Riverside Stadium yesterday. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters

Luke Edwards

The most valuable game in the history of football ended in a draw that earned Middlesbrough promotion to the Premier League and a £200m reward, but the positive impact on the town as a whole could turn out to be priceless. The point here was enough to ensure Boro join Burnley - who secured the title with a win over Charlton - in automatic promotion. Brighton will have to recover quickly, as they face Sheffield Wednesday in the play-offs on Friday.

As devastating as this was for Brighton, who miss out on automatic promotion on goal difference, after emerging as the surprise entrants in the promotion race under manager Chris Hughton, few will begrudge Boro a place back among English football's elite. In Steve Gibson, Middlesbrough have a chairman who is one of the great philanthropists of English football. An owner who, like every supporter, tends to let his heart rule his head.

They have a bright young manager in Aitor Karanka, a protege of Jose Mourinho, who despite a mid-season meltdown, in which he threatened to quit after a row with senior players, has transformed a team that was worrying about relegation when he arrived in November 2013.

But it is what promotion means to this proud, but deprived region, that makes it special. Mocked in television documentaries about the unemployed, hammered by government cuts and cruelly ignored when the Redcar Steel plant closed last year, with the loss of thousands of precious jobs, this is a timely lift for Teesside.

Forget the boost to the local economy - which will be significant - this is about restoring pride and prestige for a town and area that has always been obsessed with football, even when gates fell below 20,000 during the harshest months of the recession.

"I have always had incredible support from the fans," said Karanka. "They have always been one of the main motivations for me. They have always backed me, even when we lost in the play-off final at Wembley last year.

"People maybe laughed when I said Middlesbrough should be in the Premier League, but I always believed. Now we have done it, a year after losing in the play-offs, when people said it would be hard to go again. For the steelworkers, who have had so much hardship, hopefully their lives feel a little brighter after this. I'm so pleased for the owner, the players, but most of all the supporters. This area deserves a Premier League football club. There are 20 privileged people who manage in the Premier League and I'm going to be one of them."

Boro just about deserved this, although they made harder work of it than they should have done. Karanka's side dominated the first half and should have had more to show for it than just one goal, scored by Cristhian Stuani, after David Nugent had guided a brilliant free-kick from Gaston Ramirez back across goal.

There were a series of other openings, some gilt-edged, that were wasted with a poor final ball, while a chip from Ramirez landed on the roof of the net with David Stockdale in no-man's land.

Brighton cranked up the pressure in the second half, winning a series of free-kicks in promising positions. Eventually they got one right, Anthony Knockaert picking out the run of Dale Stephens, who did brilliantly to send a looping header into the far corner.

Brighton began to believe, but they self-harmed. Moments after he had been warned by referee Mike Dean for shoving Ramirez, the Brighton goalscorer, Stephens, went in studs up on the Spaniard, who crashed to the ground with a deep gash in his shin.

Referee Mike Dean initially appeared set to book the Brighton player, but a glance at the extent of the wound, prompted him to show a straight red. Stephens looked bemused as he left the pitch, followed by Ramirez on a stretcher. Down to 10 men, Brighton simply could not build up enough pressure to take advantage of their hosts' nerves, despite eight-minutes of stoppage time.

"I'm extremely disappointed a red card was shown," said Hughton, "I had a good view of it and we all know he was going to show a yellow card at first. We'll appeal. It is a distraught dressing room, they are devastated, but these are the highs and lows of football and we'll lift them for Friday."


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