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Boro finish on a high - but now the hard work must begin
Full-time: Yeovil Town 1 Middlesbrough 4
ON the final day of the 2012-13 season, Middlesbrough passed up the chance to finish in 12th position when they slipped to a tame defeat at Sheffield Wednesday. Twelve months on, and they secured 12th spot as they trounced Yeovil 4-1 in their final game.
There has been a considerable amount of upheaval this term, with Aitor Karanka replacing Tony Mowbray in the dug-out, 14 new players arriving during either pre-season or the course of the campaign and results varying wildly from one week to the next, but in the end, Boro have adopted the mid-table position that has increasingly become their norm.
On the one hand, stability should not be sniffed at, and having inherited a side that slipped to within three places of the relegation zone after he lost his opening fixture at Leeds, Karanka deserves considerable credit for ensuring that League One football was never a realistic concern in the latter stages of the season.
However, by expending so much energy just to stand still, Boro have underlined just how tough it will be to make the changes required if next season is to witness a sustained promotion campaign.
The foundations are solid, as underlined by the ease with which the Teessiders brushed aside basement boys Yeovil to rack up their biggest away win, but adding the quality needed to gatecrash the top six is a challenge that proved beyond both Mowbray and Gordon Strachan.
The hope is that Karanka, with his blend of Spanish style and increasingly hard-headed substance, will be capable of rising to the task. “I think we have made progress,” said the Boro head coach. “And the most important thing for me is that the basis of the team is built.
“The players have shown me this season that they are a very good team, they are very professional, and that gives me a lot of optimism for the future. I don't know how many changes we will make, but with one, two or maybe three new players for next season, I think we can do even better.”
With the season now complete, the task of rebuilding for next term begins in earnest this morning, and there are some difficult decisions pending before Karanka and the rest of his recruitment team can begin to pursue their targets.
Chief among those is what happens to Jason Steele and Seb Hines, and while the duo performed creditably as they came in from the cold at Huish Park, neither is believed to have a long-term future on Teesside.
Boro's four loan players – Jozsef Varga, Kenneth Omeruo, Nathaniel Chalobah and Danny Graham – are all due to return to their parent clubs, but there is at least a degree of interest in bringing all four back to the Riverside next season.
Varga's permanent move from Debrecen should be wrapped up before the end of the month, while Sunderland's likely survival in the Premier League should enhance Boro's chances of signing Graham, who scored his sixth goal in the last 13 matches when he opened the scoring on Saturday.
Omeruo and Chalobah's futures might not be decided until late August however, as Jose Mourinho is expected to name them in his squad for Chelsea's pre-season matches, unless the former has represented Nigeria in the World Cup finals.
“Now that the season is over, we can start to look to the future and at what we need to do to improve,” said Karanka. “I will start to think about next season now, and try to work out how we can be better.
“We need to discuss contracts and a number of things, and all of the work from now on will be geared to making sure we are ready for the start of pre-season.”
At least Boro will head into the summer in a buoyant mood after producing their most accomplished attacking display of the season at the weekend.
They were unquestionably helped by some dreadful Yeovil defending, with the deficiencies that have led to the West Country club crashing back into League One at the first time of asking clear to see, but there was still much to admire in the interplay that led to Graham, Lee Tomlin and Emmanuel Ledesma carving their opponents open at will.
Graham opened the scoring after Marek Stech had saved Ledesma's long-range shot, although his afternoon also featured two remarkable misses that saw him fail to locate an open goal after being teed up by first Chalobah and then Tomlin.
Yeovil briefly threatened to be competitive when James Hayter scored from close range, but two goals in the space of three first-half minutes saw Boro kill off the game.
Ledesma scored the first, lashing home after a one-two with Graham, and Tomlin grabbed the second, rounding Stech to roll into an empty net after Steele's quick clearance caught the Yeovil defence napping.
Boro's final goal of the season, which came two minutes after the interval, was arguably their best of the whole campaign, with Ledesma converting Adam Reach's cross via a scissors kick at the back post.
On the pitch, the Teessiders signed off in style. It is off it, however, where the hard work must now begin.