Saturday 24 February 2018

Karanka revolution has Boro dreaming

Middlesborough manager Aitor Karanka celebrates with Grant Leadbitter after beating Manchester City in the FA Cup
Middlesborough manager Aitor Karanka celebrates with Grant Leadbitter after beating Manchester City in the FA Cup

Michael Walker

A Sunday morning, late September 1996, the Clock End, Highbury: Arsène Wenger is formally introduced as Arsenal's new manager, the first foreign manager in the club's history, the bespectacled man arriving from Japan.

Wenger senses suspicion and, after outlining his ambition to gel European technique with British blood, he thinks it best to step back from stereotypes. Wenger detours 200 miles north.

"I think English football has changed in the last four or five years," he says. "Everything is internationalised today.

"Could you imagine four years ago that Ravanelli and Juninho would play in Middlesbrough?"

The Teesside reference carried the gentle smack of an insult, but it was correct of Wenger to say that everything was being internationalised. English football was changing.

It was also correct to imply that Middlesbrough did seem unlikely pioneers. While Boro raised the foreign bar with Fabrizio Ravanelli, Juninho, Emerson and many more, they stayed resolutely British in one regard: in the dugout.

In Wenger's time at Arsenal, Boro have had Bryan Robson, Steve McClaren, Gareth Southgate, Gordon Strachan and Tony Mowbray in charge. They were part of a Boro tradition extending back to Jack Robson in 1899, a line which saw the Teesside club managed only by men from England or Scotland, not even a token Welshman or Irishman.

SIGNALLED

But tomorrow, Wenger will shake hands with a Basque in a Boro jacket.

When Aitor Karanka became manager of Middlesbrough in November 2013 it signalled that a way of thinking, if not a culture, had changed.

Karanka's predecessor, Mowbray, was the Saltburn-born son of a steelworker, who had captained the club with talismanic force. Mowbray was 'Mogga', one of us, and when chairman Steve Gibson reluctantly called time on him, Boro's caretaker was Mark Venus. Venus comes from Hartlepool.

Some on Teesside joke that that's as exotic as things should get, and Gibson did say on the day of Karanka's unveiling: "In the past I have tried to be as parochial as I can. I think I could've been accused of being a little Englander."

Yesterday Gibson elaborated. "It wasn't about nationality," he said, "it was about finding the right man.

"If you're running Middlesbrough Football Club, you have to be realistic - you aren't going to get Alex Ferguson or Arsène Wenger. If you look further down it can seem like a list of scrawny, unemployed lads who've been sacked elsewhere. What excited me this time was someone who hadn't managed before. We drew up a shortlist and one name stood out: Aitor's. I said: 'Let's meet him, let's go to Madrid to see him.'

Aitor came over. It was like we'd known each other for years. Youth development, ethics, a lot of people pay lip service to all this, but, without being asked, Aitor made a presentation to us. After it I said: 'I've no questions because you've just answered them all.' He lit all the fuses again."

What also impressed Gibson was that "not once" did Karanka mention personal terms. Karanka was interested in the work.

He had some prior knowledge. As a youth coach in Spain's football federation, Karanka had heard of Middlesbrough's just-established tie-in with Atletico Madrid. He knew of Juninho because Karanka made his Real Madrid debut against him, and he knew of Boro because, on Geremi's recommendation, he came close to joining as a player.

But if there was an expectation that Middlesbrough would turn Spanish, it has not been confirmed. Players have been brought from Spain - four - but Boro's key figure remains Sunderland-born Grant Leadbitter.

With chief scout Gary Gill, Karanka has acquired domestic influences such as Lee Tomlin from Peterborough and Adam Clayton from Huddersfield. The starting XI which stunned Manchester City had seven Englishmen in it.

EVIDENCE

One of them, the scorer of the opening goal, is Patrick Bamford. The striker is evidence of another strand in Middlesbrough's recovery: Chelsea. ­Karanka's daily relationship with Mourinho has seen Bamford, Kenneth Omeruo, Tomas Kalas, Nathaniel Chalobah and Jamal Blackman loaned north.

Even when Boro introduced a sand pit to their training ground last season - open to a Spanish interpretation - it was not Karanka's decision but that of Bryan English, the club's sports scientist. English moved to Boro from Chelsea.

English is part of the team behind the team. It is the key Karanka ethic. When he won his Manager of the Month award for January - Tomlin was Player of the Month - Karanka's group-think meant he ordered around 40 players, staff and Tomlin, to pose for the celebratory picture together in the dressing-room.

Asked about changes he has made, Karanka replied: "I don't know about the past (here), but we have brought our methodology. It was the same when I was working with Jose at Real Madrid. There is a difference of 12 or 14 years' experience (with Mourinho) but it's the same methodology."

Fierce commitment to discipline, shorter, sharper training sessions, ­punctuality - Karanka's watch is set five minutes fast - and team shape have all contributed to the material difference the manager has made.

"I think everything has changed," Karanka said. "For example, at the stadium when we arrived there were 14,000; against Nottingham Forest it was sold out. We go to Millwall and Wigan with 5,000 fans, to Blackburn with 7,000."

Tomorrow, they'll bring the 5,186 fans who snapped up tickets to the Emirates in hope and a little expectation. The Karanka effect will make sure of it. (© Independent News Service)

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