The 137-year history of Middlesbrough Football Club moved in a drastic new direction yesterday.
Boro’s last manager was born in Saltburn, the son of a steelworker. Tony Mowbray played 348 times for the club, wearing the captain’s armband from the age of 22. He could scarcely be more Middlesbrough if he was running the family parmo shop on the banks of the River Tees.
Chairman Steve Gibson ventured further afield for Mowbray’s caretaker replacement, appointing Hartlepudlian Mark Venus. Before yesterday the only “foreign” manager he had appointed was Gordon Strachan, a Scot.
To bring in the club’s first overseas boss is a big leap.
Spaniard Aitor Karanka is not even the new manager, but Boro’s head coach. It suggests a first director of football is imminent, despite Gibson’s steadfast refusal to talk about that yesterday.
Sacking Mowbray – a friend since their teens – was hard for Gibson (though he stresses it was tough saying goodbye to Bryan Robson and Gareth Southgate too), and his heart told him to replace him with Venus.
“I would have liked it to have been Mark,” he admits. “But that’s a big fairytale.”
Gibson bristles at the suggestion FA chairman Greg Dyke will be less than enamoured to see him hop on the foreign manager bandwagon. Three of his last six managers graduated to England’s coaching staff – Terry Venables went the opposite way – as manager (Steve McClaren), assistant manager (Robson) and Under-21 coach (Southgate).
Karanka, a three-time European Cup winner, former Spain left-back-turned-under-16/17 coach and Jose Mourinho protégé is here to help, not hinder English talent.
“I think it’s about self-interest,” Gibson explains. “He (Dyke) has got his self-interest, which is the FA, and I’ve got my self-interest, which is Middlesbrough Football Club. I’m an Englishman and I always want Englishmen to do well but maybe the English footballers we have here can learn from the Spanish influence.
“In the past I have tried to be as parochial as I can and to get English managers if possible – other than one (Strachan) – but this is the right decision for me. I’m convinced of it. I had over 100 people contact me (about the vacancy), some of whom would be a surprise to you, but it didn’t seem that simply by changing the coach I was going to bring any real change into the football club. This is a real change. If we look at who has been the greatest football-producing nation of this generation it’s been the Spanish.
“I can understand Greg Dyke wants our FA and England to do very well and so do I, but we think our English players can benefit from having a Spanish coach at this time. Not because he’s Spanish but because he’s the right coach. I’ve appointed him not because he’s foreign but because he’s the right coach. If he’d been from Timbuktu and he was the right coach, I’d have appointed him.”
The process of learning from the Spanish has already begun at Middlesbrough’s prolific academy.
“We’ve got a link-up with Atletico Madrid and we’ve actually placed some of our youngsters into Madrid,” he says. “They’re all Middlesbrough lads who’ve come through our system but they’ve not seen an alternative lifestyle. We thought it would give them a good insight, shake them up a little bit, to go to Spain for three months and see another culture.
“It’s not a holiday, they’re working hard. In the evenings they have Spanish lessons for two or three hours. It is a proper cultural exchange.”
Despite having Spain Under-17s and 16s coach on his cv, it is unclear how much influence 40-year-old Karanka will have over Boro’s strongest suit.
“It’s a very important part of it but I think our academy is very strong anyway,” Gibson comments.
“We’ve got a great guy in Dave Parnaby and he’s got great staff around him. Our first, clear objective is to get back into the Premiership. That’s Aitor’s remit and we want to do that as soon as he can possibly do so.” Karanka has done his homework on Boro and sees parallels with Spain’s most parochial club and his first – Atletico Bilbao, who still refuse to sign footballers not born or schooled in the Basque country.
“I see a lot of similar things between Middlesbrough and Bilbao,” he says. “The facilities, the club as a family... even the weather is similar, it can be cold!”
It is a more realistic prototype than Karanka’s other La Liga side, Real Madrid, where he was Mourinho’s assistant. North East steel and shipyard workers helped form Los Leones (The Lions), and their insular approach has meant they, like Boro, have relied on a strong youth system.
“I know Middlesbrough’s academy is brilliant,” Karanka says. “In the squad there are many players from the youth categories and I believe 100% in the youth people. I came from Athletic Bilbao, I worked with the Spanish national team Under-17s and Under-16s and I believe in promoting youth 100%.”
And, not that Gibson realised until he approached Karanka a fortnight ago, the left-back nearly signed for Boro in 2005.
“It was the last day (of the transfer window), I had a call at 5pm and we didn’t have time to sign the contract,” he explains. “Middlesbrough wanted me and I would have loved to come. It was not possible but now, yes.”
Maybe Karanka is not so foreign after all.