Tony Mowbray: 'Red Adair' at home in Boro hotseat
Firefighting manager understands local pride is at stake in tonight's FA Cup tie with Sunderland. He talks to Martin Hardy
Tony Mowbray is incredulous. "I would never have dreamed of going into Bruce Rioch's office and moaning about this and that," he says. "You just got on with what you were told to do." We are talking about one of his Middlesbrough players, who has a desire to go out on loan. The incredulity soon passes. Mowbray is too affable and engaging for that, as Rioch would testify.
A legend was born when the former Middlesbrough manager said of the current one, when he was captain: "If I had to fly to the moon, I would take Tony Mowbray with me."
Twenty-five years on, a fanzine taken from that quote (Fly Me to the Moon), still flourishes on Teesside. Twenty five years on, Mowbray is breathing life into his hometown football club. They lie in sixth place in the Championship, and despite a run of one win in eight games will fancy their chances when Sunderland make the short trip to the Riverside for tonight's FA Cup tie.
Red Adair's phone used to ring whenever the oil fires were out of control. At Middlesbrough, when the lights are going out, they turn to Mowbray. He was barely 22 when Rioch handed him the captain's armband of a bankrupt Third Division club back in 1986. Mowbray and a bunch of youth players with dyed blond hair somehow blasted Middlesbrough, a club locked out of their own ground at the start of that season, back into the old First Division.
The gates were not locked when Mowbray got the call 15 months ago, but there were genuine reasons for concern. Middlesbrough had received their final Premier League parachute payment. Gates had fallen to around 15,000. The unthinkable – relegation back to the third tier of English football – was a real possibility.
In their hour of need, Mowbray's bat-phone flashed and the heart warmed so much at the prospect of coming home, that he passed up the small fortune Celtic still owed him to succeed Gordon Strachan.
"Do I feel like a Boro Red Adair?" he replies. "Ha ha, yeah, but then my managerial jobs have been a bit like that. I never felt it was inevitable I would be manager here. It was always about the timing. It was more a natural thing to be captain. I was the last man standing then!
"I made a few sacrifices to take the manager's job here, I had a lot of contractual money from Celtic that I gave up to take the job. I could have been sat on my backside at home, but there was the draw of this club, the timing might never have been right again if I had waited for my contractual obligations with Celtic to have expired.
"My career would have moved on, a new manager would have come in and the two paths might never have crossed again. The draw of it was too great to risk that."
He still remembers going down to the steelworks in Redcar with his dad, a scaffolder, as a child. He feels the job losses a bit more, understands the empty seats, promises to tell them how it is. "I think I empathise with the fans more because I'm a local lad," he adds.
"I know when the fans are disillusioned, my friends are all Boro fans and they give me their thoughts.
"I grew up in this area. I lived here 'til I was 27. I lived in Redcar where there was the Corus steel plant. My dad used to take me to the blast furnace and I can still remember the heat in my face.
"I know the people of Teesside. They are hardworking, they are honest, they call it as it is and they tell you how it is. I would like to think I'm no different. The supporters know what they get from me. I will tell them how it is. I won't give them manager's spiel. There will always be an honest and a straight answer."
There is a humility and warmth to Mowbray that is refreshing. He has football flowing through his veins but he drips more with compassion. He remains unclear as to why such vitriol came his way during his brief tenure at Celtic. He wanted to build a legacy but those in power panicked less than a year into his programme.
He has the faith once more, back home, among people who trust him, but there are no illusions. Spending £1.3m on Lukas Jutkiewicz last month was a huge deal. Big earners have been shipped out, attendances have slowly started to rise, there is cautious optimism and the football is more slick.
But for now, a man who left the North-east to go to Celtic as a player in 1991, before making the reverse journey almost 20 years later, knows the importance of results. "We are trying to get a successful team on the pitch and one that will excite our supporters," he adds. "If we win, I go home, play with the kids and throw them about and tickle their tummies. If we lose, then nothing. Joking apart, the overriding factor of defeat is sadness. You feel you've let people down.
"Things are fine here though. I've worked hard since I came back and I'm still working as hard as I possibly can to try and stay in the top end of this table and try and get us back into the promised land. I enjoy coming into work every day and that is important.
"I talk to the young lads who have the Porsches and the Audis and the Bentleys and I break it down, I strip away the trappings. I say, 'I'm a guy looking you in the eye and I'm telling you this is what has to happen. I ain't interested in how much we pay you. I'm stripping you down to be a footballer. I can make you a better player'.
"I have a philosophy. We educate, we try to teach, the job is to inspire and give them a cause to fight for."
A cause. Middlesbrough's cause. Mowbray's cause.
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