PLAN B? The arrival of Craig Hignett at Aitor Karanka’s No 2 has been dismissed in some quarters as a retreat from the early intention when the new boss was installed to quickly appoint an assistant manager that could help him bridge the cultural gap.
Some people think it is some kind of PR stunt to deaden the impact of a seven game goal drought by bringing in a fans favourite as part of a damage limitation exercise. Worse still, some conspiracists see the arrival of the one time Midget Gem midfielder as the opening move in an elaborate shadowy plot that has the end game of Karanka’s exit.
In fact it is intended to strengthen Karanka’s position by adding to the skill set and knowledge base of the management team. It adds an English ingredient to the matchday mix and an acute awareness of the nuances of both the club and the division. That was always pencilled in. It may be several months later than intended and it may not be the name most expected, but this is Plan A
Higgy maybe hasn’t got a lengthy dug-out track record – but then, what assistant has? Some people expected a big name. How many Championship sides have those as a No 2? Others persuaded themselves or desperately wanted to believe the rumours that Raul was on his way and now feel cheated by their own naivety.
It was always intended to bring in an English assistant. Steve Gibson said that on day one. It is an obvious move to supplement a foreign bosses’ tactical and techincal knowhow with a little local knowledge. Karanka wanted his own backroom staff and has got them – a keeper coach, conditioning and fitness staff, a computer analyst guru – but from day one it was always intended to bring in dedicated domestic support.
It is also the Mourinho model that both Karanka and Gibson have invested heavily in. At Chelsea “the Special One” promoted Steve Clark. At Inter he chose Giuseppe Baresi, a former player and ex-head coach of their youth academy. When he arrived at Real Madrid he asked the senior management to draw up a list of people who knew the club and the Spanish game that they thought suitable then canvassed some recently retired giant of the game like Figo and Raul about the list. They all recommended Karanka.
He had never been a manager, nor even in a senior dug-out. His coaching background was with the Spanish Under 15 and 16 sides. And he had never even met Mourinho. But the belief within the Real hierarchy was that he had the intelligence, the nous, the drive, the determination and a feel for the culture of the club and La Liga that would fill in some of the gaps in Mourinho’s knowledge of the new landscape. It worked.
We don’t know if Higgy was the first candidate. It is possible others at other clubs were courted – I had a liitle fancy for Eddie Newton at Chelsea – and either were found unsuitable or could not be tempted (although we know a lot of the early names floated on the grapevine like Mike Phelan were never under consideration). Neither do we know if Higgy will be a success. That is never guaranteed. But we do know he ticks a lot of boxes.
When I interviewed him after his first training session at Hurworth he was buzzing. He was anxious to point out that the job description was wide-ranging and that he would need to grow into the role and learn to understand Karanka but in the course of the interview it became clear that the reason he had been brought in was because he met the profile drawn up by both the boss and the chairman. Here’s the quotes:
“I wouldn’t exactly say I was part of the DNA but I know the club, I know the set-up, the history, the area, the fans,. That all helps.
“I know the expectations and mentality of the club and the fans. A club this big with these facilities should be higher up than it is and it’s our job to make sure we do everything we can to get them back up there.
“If I can add a bit extra to the mix with some knowledge that maybe Aitor doesn’t have, then that all helps the club.
“The Championship is the league I know the best. I played in it and I watched it every week when I was working with Tees. I know most of the managers in this league, how they think, how they play. I know 90% of the players. I know the teams. I know the tempo. It’s the league I’m probably most comfortable with. Things like that can help Aitor.
“Arguably that is the gap that Aitor has in his knowledge here at Boro. He has come to a country and a football culture he doesn’t really know. He knows the game inside out but maybe he does know all the players, the styles of football at different clubs and what to expect from certain games and certain grounds.
“I may be a sounding board for some of the players too, maybe be able to let Aitor know things about the culture here that perhaps he didn’t know. I can be a link between everything at the club. If I can help fill in some of those gaps then hopefully that extra knowledge makes us stronger as a unit, as a staff and as a team.”
That sounds like he knows exactly what he can add to the mix. Local knowledge. Some sense of the nuances of the Championship and the style and tempo of specific games. Some culturally sensitive man management. That’s a good thing.
Some people have projected their own hopes and bias onto the appointment and have deduced that Higgy will be instructing Karanka to play two up top an play more attacking football and seize the role as striking coach. That won’t be happening. Don’t expect a sudden switch to 442. The shape, the style and the central philosophy will remain. Karanka is still in charge and calling the shots.
But if Higgy’s input and the knowledge of the division – he’s played for most of the team’s in it! – can help tweak the mental or tactical approach in particular games, or phases of games, and can improve individual and collective performance by even a couple of percentage points then that can influence the outcome of games. We may even score.