After notching up his 200th club appearance in recent weeks, defender Dani Ayala is enjoying his role and responsibilities as one of the elder statesmen in a young Boro team.
Ayala marked his double century at the Riverside in our 1-1 draw with Preston - a fixture in which he also wore the captain’s armband, a frequent occurrence in the injury-forced absence of regular skipper George Friend.
Having progressed from a promising youngster to a defensive stalwart during his years with Boro, Ayala is hoping to once again lead the club up the Championship table.
The Spaniard, who turns 29 next month, admits that he didn’t always foresee such a future when he first arrived on Teesside back in 2013.
“It has been brilliant to be honest,” he said.
“Sometimes you don’t realise, you just keep your head down and focus on playing. But I will have been here seven years when I finish this season, it’s a long time in football.
“When I left Liverpool, I went to Hull City, Derby, Norwich and Nottingham Forest. I was always moving around, but I felt I needed to settle somewhere eventually.
“Everything fell right at Boro. In the first three games I scored two goals, then Aitor Karanka came, of course he is Spanish and he understood me. It went from there, and I went from strength to strength.”
"I’m part of the club, I care for it. My two kids were born here, they are four and three, and all they have known is this place.”Dani Ayala
Boro’s current head coach is another who is very familiar to Ayala - Jonathan Woodgate was alongside him in defence for his goalscoring debut against Doncaster.
The pair have come a long way since then, and Ayala has grown to love the club just like his Nunthorpe-born boss.
“I remember when we used to do boxes in training, it was always the youngest who was in the middle - so I was in all the time,” Ayala recalls.
“Now I never go in. It doesn’t feel too good knowing you’re one of the oldest!
“It’s unbelievable, obviously I played with Jonathan Woodgate and now he’s the head coach. Leo was here too under Karanka and he’s come back.
“When you’re changing year after year, it can feel like you’re just there. But this feels different, like I’m part of the club, I care for it. My two kids were born here, they are four and three, and all they have known is this place.”
Ayala has enjoyed many incredible moments in a red shirt, and had challenges to overcome too. The defender says it all has been valuable experience to get him where he is today, striving for another crack at the top flight.
“Promotion was the highlight, although the year before we did so well up until the Play-Off final,” he said.
“The cup games - especially when you’re in the Championship - some people say you should focus on the league but they give something different for the fans to look forward to and we beat some big teams.
“The Premier League season was frustrating because in those two years before I’d played really well, but I couldn’t really show anything because of my injuries. We’d worked so hard but went down straightaway, so that was even worse.
“Now, I’m happy to be playing injury free and in the team week-in, week-out.”
That said, Ayala knows Boro must do better than has been achieved so far this season. His goal against Birmingham wasn’t enough to snatch a point at St Andrew’s last time out, and the defender’s post-match comments voiced in no uncertain terms that the Teessiders must improve.
“Obviously, we are down the bottom and that’s not what I was picturing for us this season,” he said.
“We have sold players, brought new ones in and a new manager has come in, so you need a bit of time for transition. But I still picture us a lot higher in the table. We are here now and we have to keep going, and hopefully start picking up points.
“I remember when Karanka came in we were down in the bottom half of the table, it was the year after that we were pushing for the Play-Off positions.
“It shows that you have to give time to a manager, you cannot keep changing and changing. I think that’s the worst thing a club can do.
“Everyone is together, and we get on with it. In time, hopefully we should be going places.”
Ayala has been joined by young summer arrivals Anfernee Dijksteel and Marc Bola in Boro’s backline this campaign, as well as 22-year-old Dael Fry on his return from injury. Echoing his post-match comments from Birmingham - “we have to learn fast” - Ayala knows it brings extra responsibility for a senior figure such as himself.
“We’ve signed young players, good players who played well in League One last year but its a different league, a different level and they need to adapt,” he said.
“You can see the more they play, the more they feel comfortable. As senior players, we need to help them settle.
“It’s a lot of games, and sometimes when you lose games it’s important not to lose focus.
“It’s easy when you haven’t won for a few games to start second guessing yourselves, but we know we’re doing the right things to go in the right direction. Hopefully we can pick up those points and start climbing the table again.
“When we start picking up results the confidence comes back in, but you have to keep believing.”