‘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

The Football League Paper - - CHAMPIONSHIP -

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.

PIC­TURE: Tim Hick­man

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

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