‘There is bound to demand for Aitor but I can’t fear it'
Bob Cass talks to Boro owner Steve Gibson ahead of their big FA Cup tie
AS a managerial talent spotter, Steve Gibson warrants more than a modicum of respect. His record of employing no fewer than four international coaches at Middlesbrough makes him unique among club owners.
At various times during the two decades he has called the shots at the Teesside outfit, former England bosses Terry Venables and Steve McClaren; current Scottish manager Gordon Strachan, and England U21 coach and, in many eyes, Roy Hodgson’s heir apparent for the top job, Gareth Southgate, have occupied the hot-seat.
Now Gibson is convinced he has unearthed another football diamond in Aitor Karanka. And, in a rare and exclusive interview for The Football
League Paper, he drew on his memories of working with ‘special people’, to admit a successful future under the Spaniard could open the door to Karanka moving on to bigger opportunities.
Tottenham Hotspur’s hi-jacking of Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino reflects the vulnerability of bright young managers when bigspending sharks start circling.
“Of course there are going to be people knocking on my door,” he said. “It’s a sign of his success that there will be a demand out there for him. I can’t fear it; I’ve just got to get on with it.
“But the grass is not always greener. I’ve got to know the man, we have a very close relationship. He’s comfortable here, his family have settled here; he enjoys it here.
“I think there will be a time for him to move on to bigger things – and I think he could be very big indeed. But I know, and he knows, what we agreed; what the project is here; what the aims are here, what the targets are here.
“Aitor will fulfil his contract here and I hope at some stage he will extend his stay with us.”
It is not difficult to understand Gibson’s regard for his managerial rookie. In the 15 months since he took over, Karanka’s influence on Boro’s fortunes has been meteoric as the chairman readily points out.
“When he joined us we were two or three points above the bottom three and in that season we didn’t finish far away from the play-offs,” he observes.
“Under Aitor, without any change in personnel, he took us from just over a point a game to something like 1.8 points a game. That was promotion form. If we’d have had him for 46 games we’d have definitely finished in the play-offs.”
More recently, a run of five successive Championship wins have put the team in pole position in what is developing into a fiercely contested promotion battle.
“He’s turned us around far quicker than I could ever have hoped. Currently, we’re top but that’s just a snapshot. Where we will be at the end of the season I don’t know but he’s made us competitive.”
The link between Karanka’s arrival in England and that of his former Real Madrid mentor Jose Mourinho is inescapable.
The common denominator in both appointments has been former Chelsea supremo Peter Kenyon. Mourinho first bounded into Stamford Bridge under Kenyon’s watch as chief executive in 2004; the seeds of Karanka’s entry were sown when Kenyon not only recommended the Basque-born coach to Gibson but also set up their first meeting. “Peter is a very good friend. After Tony (Mowbray) left, we had drawn up a short list and he said ‘I think there’s a guy you should meet’. He told me about him and his pedigree was unbelievable…. three Champions Leagues, played for Real Madrid, represented Spain. He’d worked with the Spanish youth teams that went on to fantastic things. He was very focussed on youth development which we have to be at Middlesbrough, and, of course he had worked with one of the greatest coaches in the world at Real Madrid.
“You have to have some management skills to handle the kind of players he was coaching at Real Madrid. I thought it a big ask that he would come to Middlesbrough after being with Real but I told Peter I was interested in talking to him.
“I was ready to fly to Spain to meet him when Peter told me he would come to me instead. I had a full day with him and was struck by his enthusiasm. He was fresh, different. I tried to explain the difference in culture between Middlesbrough and Madrid, and he just said, ‘I’m from the Basque country; my people are industrious, they work hard, they’re working class. I’m no different’.
“He had this hunger, this steely determination. We didn’t promise him funds we didn’t have.We told him it was going to be a hard slog; that we were looking for a sustainable and gradual progression. We didn’t expect any magic wands.
“He was totally committed from the start. He said he would bring his family over straightaway. He said, ‘I’m not coming here to use Middlesbrough as a stepping stone; I’m coming to turn the club around’.
“We told him we would make sure the resources we gave him would be competitive in this league. He’s achieved that with a very limited budget.
“He’s been with us a year and a half coming up and there is a totally different ethos within the club. We have a great set of lads in the dressing room. They all want to be part of what we’re trying to do here.”
Gibson’s close working relationship with his manager typifies the kind of full-on partnerships – even strong friendships – he has enjoyed with Karanka’s predecessors at the Riverside Stadium. His toughest decisions have been when circumstances have forced his head to rule his heart.
“I’ve worked with some great people… Bryan Robson, Steve McClaren, Gareth Southgate, Tony Mowbray,” he recalls.
“Sometimes change is necessary; not change for change’s sake but maybe the incumbent has run out of ideas; they’ve become a bit weary with it and it starts affecting their lives in a detrimental way.”
The departure of Bryan Robson remains a deep source of regret that Gibson felt he needed to let go a close pal.
“He was here for seven years and did absolutely fabulously for us. And he had six bad months and you’ve got to change things because of it,” he explains.
“It was a magical time when he was here. It wasn’t that we were able to buy players; it was Bryan Robson and the team he brought: a back-room staff like Gordon McQuee Viv Anderson and Bryan himself. These were very special people and it was a joy to be around them. They were full of energy; full of humour, they had a kind of smell of success.
“We had gone from twelfth to champions in Bryan’s first year. He was always smiling, always jolly. His character and charisma took a club which was quite a dour club and seen as a dour club, into one which was seen to have a smile on it face He put a smile on the face of the town.
“Before him, we had never been beyond the sixth round of the FA Cup; the semi-finals of the League Cup. Under him, we were contesting FA Cup and League Cup finals and we were consistently in the Premiership.”
Gibson’s appreci ation of others he dismissed was no less genuine although he con-siders Steve McClaren's exit to take the Eng-
land manager’s job was down to misguided ambition. “We got to the final of a European competition and won our first trophy,” he adds. “We won the most Premier League points under him. He was ambitious and he caught the eye of others. I understood that. He was always going to be in demand.
“I think, perhaps, he would accept England was one job too early. But he’s a great manager; doing a great job at Derby. I hope he does well but not as well as us this season!”
The sadness returns when he talks about the circumstances behind Southgate’s removal.
“We’ve always gone for young managers and Gareth was our skipper during the most successful time in the club’s history.
“Anybody who’s met him would agree he is full of integrity; a very clever man, very intelligent. But he’s got real steel in him on the pitch and I thought he could be the guy.We got relegated in his reign but the club at the time was going through a lot of change. The financial demands of football were getting harsher and harsher and perhaps he was one of the people who didn’t get the support he deserved.
“Gareth had two very decent years with us but in that third year we had to tighten the belt a little bit; perhaps the resources weren’t available to him in that year. I might have asked too much of him, too early.” After six seasons in the Championship, Middles
brough’s return to the promotion fray could not be more timely. Last week’s £5.1billion television deal has upped the ante for any team with Premier League ambitions.
“Like any other Championship club, we want to be in the Premier League. We had 12 consecutive years up there and it’s the only place to be,” Gibson declares. “The money is important as a means of being able to compete. We’re not involved in Middlesbrough Football Club to make money for the sake of it; we want sporting glory. That sounds very grand – but it’s true.
“This new television deal will allow English clubs to be the most powerful in the world. And the Premier League to be the most attractive.
“I hear one or two idiotic politicians saying it’s disgusting; it’s obscene. But that’s the market. It’s a sign of the success of the Premier League. There’s nothing disgusting about it.
“I’ve met far more intelligent people in football than I’ve ever done in politics. I’d probably vote for Richard Scudamore as Prime Minister before any of the politicians who are out there.”
If Gibson clings to an idealistic vision of football as pure entertainment, he is also realistic about where his club need to be.
“People take it very seriously but it’s about entertaining people and trying to put a smile on the town’s face. It isn’t as serious as sometimes people make it out to be,” he insists.
“When I joined the club in 1984 the circumstances weren’t great. I hope I have changed the club’s fortunes round. Even when things have gone badly, the fans have been terrific saying things like ‘keep your chin up Steve, we’re right behind you’. Nobody has said, ‘Get a foreign owner in; get foreign investment’. “They want to stay local; they like the way the club operates. We like its position in the community which is very important.
“Of course you want to be successful but not at any price and what I have tried to do at this football club is keep it competitive.
“I’ve never said to a manager: you have to win something; you have to win the next game or the next three games. You just have to hope you have appointed a guy who can keep the club competitive.”
Steve Gibson’s penchant for picking managerial winners would suggest, in Aitor Karanka, he has done just that.
MAIN MAN: Boro owner Steve Gibson and, inset, current manager Aitor Karanka
1994-2000: Bryan Robson 2000-2001: Terry Venables
2001-2006: Steve McClaren
2009-2010 Gordon Strachan
2006-2009: Gareth Southgate