He saved Boro and led them to glory
WHEN Steve Gibson was asked to rescue Middlesbrough, a 28-year-old businessman from the town’s rough Park End estate, the club was taking its final, gasping breaths.
“The liquidators were in,” recalled Tony Mowbray, Boro’s young skipper in that wretched spring and summer of 1986.
“The Boro gates at Ayresome Park got locked.We couldn’t even get to our training kit so we bought some t-shirts and trained in the park, sometimes with jumpers for goalposts.
“There were spells when we didn’t get paid and were times we had to go to the town hall and get cash in brown envelopes off the council to keep the players’ registrations. Then the manager and all the staff were laid off.”
By August, with debts spiraling beyond £2m and the Football League threatening expulsion, Tyne Tees news formally announced the death of the club.
But they had reckoned without Gibson, the haulage entrepreneur who at just 21 had become Middlesbrough’s youngest Labour councillor.
That very same day, he trav- elled to Heathrow airport and met racehorse owner Henry Moszkowicz, who handed over £300,000 in a briefcase. Gibson’s consortium then stumped up another £825,000.
MIddlesbrough survived with ten minutes to spare, Gibson took control and, exactly two decades later, the local lad had a Premier League side with one of the country’s finest academies, a League Cup in the trophy cabinet and an appearance in the UEFA Cup final.
Little wonder, then, that when Boro stepped out at Eindhoven that night in 2006, it was not the names of manager Steve McClaren or striker Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink that echoed around the ground. It was that of their saviour and benefactor.
“Back in ’86, Steve was the focal point that kept everyone together,” said former Boro player Brian Laws. “And he is still that focal point now. He’s a visionary chairman who loves the club and every single supporter up there appreciates what he has done.”
The town has much to be grateful for. It was Gibson who bankrolled promotion to the Premier League, then the arrival of international superstars like Juninho and Fabrizio Ravanelli. Between 1995 and 2001, some £78m was spent on transfers, with a further £16m ploughed into building the 34,000-seater Riverside Stadium.
But so too does the management fraternity. Because not only has Gibson always sought to give first-time managers a break, he has stood by them when others might have pulled the trigger.
“In terms of loyalty and finance, nobody has been so reliable,” said Neil Warnock, who once said his biggest regret in football was never getting the chance to work with Gibson.
“Without him at the helm, I think the club would have been in a real mess over the years. And over the last 20 years or so, I don’t think any chairman has done as much to support young British managers. He gave Bryan Robson his break, then Steve McClaren and Gareth Southgate. Now he’s given Aitor Karanka his first job. In 30 years, he’s had ten managers which is an incredible record in the modern game.”
Indeed, when Karanka called his mentor Jose Mourinho to say he’d been offered the job, the Portuguese told him not to hesitate.
Yet the Boro chairman is no pushover. In those early days at Ayresome Park, he persuaded third-generation shareholders (“more interested in what they’d had for lunch than tackling the debts”) to hand over full executive control of the club.
When they dismissively relented and asked what he was going to do, Gibson replied, “None of your business, you’re all fired.”
McClaren, after fielding a weakened side in a League Cup game, was hauled into Gibson’s office and read the riot act.
“He’s a nice guy and a personal friend, but I always knew he was a hard-bitten, cut-throat businessman,” said Robson, who suffered his own slice of ruthlessness when he was dismissed to make way for McClaren in 2001.
“I used to read some of the rubbish that was written about our spending and they were talking as if Steve didn’t have a head for business. I thought, ‘Do they even know who they’re dealing with?’ He would never let this club get into trouble again.”
And he hasn’t, continuing to pump his heart, soul and cash into a club that this year posted a pretax loss of £20m.
“Steve had been through the ringer with Boro and that gives him a sense of perspective,” said ex-boss Southgate. “Every decision he makes is for the good of the club. He wants Middlesbrough to achieve but, above all, he wants them to survive.”
PENNY FOR THEM: Steve Gibson in pensive mood and, inset, with current boss Aitor Karanka