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.
“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-year-old. “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.”
*This article was originally published in The FLP on 17 January 2016.