INTERNATIONAL breaks can be frustrating. Withdrawal symptoms make Boroholics tense and tetchy, simmering and snappy. Inevitably tempers bubble over and squabbles start and soon protocol breaks down witty, urbane banter becomes more ascerbic, personal and threatening and before you know it, we’re the car-park to sort out once and for all.
The latest abstract to go physical came after our debut podcast in which we collectively gushed over Aitor’s transformation of the club from top to bottom. It lead to a third party innocently asking: “Is Karanka Steve GIbson’s best ever appointment?” Well…
Battle-lines were quickly drawn between myself and Mr T as an Iron Curtain was thrown up across the sports desk. There’s only one way to settle it…. FIGHT!
Here’s our submissions. Feel free to diss, agree and comment. (It’ll keep you going until we start gearing up for Wigan come Thursday.)
No, to be blunt. Aitor Karanka is steely, disciplined, professional, focussed, driven and ruthless, and I’m sure he can lead Boro out of the Championship wilderness and back into the Promised Land. And for this we are happy.
I hope he goes on to re-establish Boro as a top-flight fixture and win trophies and carve out a legend that earns a statue outside the stadium. But even if he does, he will never be the mould-breaking, epoch-shaping dream-time manager that Bryan Robson was.
No Robson, no Riverside Revolution. No Juninho. No cavalier rash dash to Wembley chasing a dream. Three times. No wild-eye zealous belief that Boro could actually be a big club. No Galactico recruitment drive.
Mould-breaking Robbo models Boro’s controversial “formal” away kit
Now, Robbo was never the cerebral clipboard type, no badged-up academic uber-coach aiming to out-think rivals in a tactical chess match. Technically, tactically, preparing coaching drills, media mind-games, balancing the books or fitness and nutrition… whatever the criteria, if all the modern Boro bosses were tested objectively by LMA monitors, Robbo would be near the bottom on all counts. Especially on fitness and nutrition. But that isn’t the point.
Bryan Robson wasn’t a “manager” in the normal sense, he was human rocket fuel for the Riverside Revolution. He was the catalyst that made an outlandish dream come true.
The dream was to transform a second-tier provincial makeweight with a long barren history from an unfashionable post-industrial town into a major player in the game, into an audacious outfit that could compete with the biggest sides in England – and in Europe.
The dream was to position Boro on football’s top table and to bring in star names to kick-start an epic journey to glory. Steve Gibson had the vision, he had the money, and he had planning permission for the box-fresh stadium that would host the grand project.
But to make the project, it work it was vital he got the right manager.
In Robbo he did just that. Think back to the tactically impoverished dug-out job-shop of the time. There were plenty of bosses available who were ‘better’… but they all came with baggage, an established style – usually dour and functional – and with limited horizons. Howard Wilkinson, Big Ron, George Graham, Gary Megson, Mark McGhee, Neil Warnock, Graham Taylor, they were all the rage. Effective, functional, tried and tested.
But Robson was one of the biggest names in the game and had incredibly high expectations and ambitions, but no prescriptive tactical or managerial style. He didn’t come armed with functional caution or an instinct to build slowly.
He arrived excited by Gibson’s vision and believing he could make it a reality.
He was ready to buy into the dream, whereas a Howard Wilkinson or Ron Atkinson may have been more cynical, dismissed the fairytale narrative and set about imposing their usual template. And they certainly wouldn’t have fired fans’ imaginations.
But Robbo believed in a new era of possibility.
When told to go out and sign the players he wanted – money no object – he tried to get the brightest prospect in England, Brazil’s player of the year and a bloke who had just scored in Champions League final. Wilkinson might have gone for Lee Chapman.
Robbo was also a man who opened doors: to sponsors, agents, managers and players. If Robbo rang a player, they took the call. They listened. They were flattered. And with his interest and Gibson’s willingness to break the bank on wages, almost any player in the world was within reach. And crucially, Robson made Boro “a story.”
Younger fans may not appreciate it, but he was a massive figure, the best player of his generation and hugely respected within the game. He had a huge media profile. From the moment he arrived, the cameras gathered at Ayresome Park And once he delivered promotion at the first attempt the narrative gathered pace in the Premiership. Believe it or not, for a while Boro were media darlings.
It was brilliant. It was the first flush of love, the swagger of youth, there was a zest about the club. It was a great time to be a fan. And Robbo was essential to that.
If Aitor ignites a similar explosion of ambition and expanded horizons of possibility, great, bring it on – but it will take some doing.
The answer, based on what we’ve seen over the past year on and off the field, is yes.
There’s no doubt he won’t preside over a period in the club’s history as emotionally exciting – and draining – as Bryan Robson’s rollercoaster. No one will. That was a one-off perfect storm of circumstances that can happen only once in a lifetime.
Robbo’s status as an England legend, his global profile, his “sky’s the limit” ambition, coupled with unprecedented backing from Steve Gibson and the move to the brand new Riverside Stadium, made for an intoxicating blend that mesmerised Teesside.
But, rather like the house built in sand, the foundations weren’t deep enough to sustain long-term success and, reflecting on Robson’s career as a whole, his managerial record is patchy at best.
Steve McClaren is the club’s most successful manager in terms of tangible achievements. A major trophy and two European campaigns culminating in the UEFA Cup final will take some beating.
But, despite unstinting financial support from the chairman, his record in the league was nothing to write home about, with just one top-half finish achieved in five seasons. Arguably, his greatest achievement was keeping a transitional team in the top flight in his first year, and I’d argue Tony Mowbray has yet to receive the praise he deserves for keeping the club in the Championship when he took over from Gordon Strachan.
We’ll never know how well Mowbray would have done if he’d received the financial support Karanka’s enjoyed, but Gibson had backed Strachan to the hilt, leaving the kitty empty, and two years of belt-tightening were required to balance the books following the Scot’s departure.
These are still relatively early days for Karanka, but everything we’ve seen points to a character who will rise to the very top in management.
After years of cost-cutting Aitor Karanka arrives at a club with only ONE scarf
His coaching credentials are second to none. After hanging up his boots, he took his badges and then accepted an invitation to work under Real Madrid legend and former team-mate Fernando Hierro with the Spanish national youth set-up.
Then, when Jose Mourinho was scouting around for an assistant after taking charge at the Bernabeu, he sounded out Galacticos Luis Figo and Clarence Seedorf and was told to check out Karanka’s credentials.
As apprenticeships go, three years alongside the Special One working with some of the world’s best players is hard to beat.
But that background would count for nothing if he couldn’t apply his knowledge on the training ground at Rockliffe Park.
Fortunately, he delivered tangible results. Within weeks of taking charge at Boro, he repaired a defence that wasn’t fit for purpose. In interviews, players said training sessions was incredibly intense but also extremely effective. Well-travelled, seasoned pro Jonathan Woodgate declared the sessions the best he’d ever experienced.
Karanka laid down his philosophy from day one.
Players would only be picked in the team if they impressed in training and would only stay in the team if they impressed in the matches and in subsequent training sessions. Anyone stepping out of line found themselves out of the team, and Karanka would have no hesitation in revealing publicly why they’d been discarded.
Many of those players buying into the new regime improved in front of our very eyes.
Ben Gibson, Danny Ayala, Adam Reach and George Friend are all better players than they were a year ago. His only blooper was the decision to make Tomas Mejias his first-choice keeper at the start of the season, but he was prepared to admit his mistake and drop his compatriot.
Tactically, he’s a pragmatist. Lacking the personnel to change things around last season, he settled on 4-2-3-1 but, since his summer re-build, he’s been tactically adventurous, making use of his greater resources.
But a key reason why Karanka could prove to be Gibson’s best appointment is because he chose the right man at a time, when a bad choice could have seen Boro slip into terminal decline.