Football: Gibson now a wiser Boro boy

'To accelerate your progress in today's market is virtually impossible. It has to be a lot slower'
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The Independent Online
THE DISTASTE is immediately evident in Steve Gibson's response to the very mention of the concept of "flotation". Not, it must be stressed, that we are discussing the kind that keeps the ships his Middlesbrough company designs and builds upright; rather the one that can remove control of a football club to anonymous shareholders. "Points in the league are far more important to me than pounds in the balance sheet and I've no intention of floating," says the Boro chairman defiantly. "Football is one thing that unites a town and the flagship of our town is the football club. It would be bloody awful for Middlesbrough to be owned by people in the City, by somebody who doesn't even know where the town is on the map."

What with Gibson's declaration of intent, his manager Bryan Robson signed up for five years and provided with seemingly bottomless pockets for transfers, and the newly promoted team doing rather nicely, thank you, at the right end of the Premiership, it's not exactly a depressing prospect for any Boro supporter. Which makes a change. For that perennially deprived native of the North-east - unlike his Newcastle and Sunderland cousins - has never been able to revel in the glories to which Gibson believes they are entitled their turn.

After five years in which he has overseen the club's dramatically fluctuating fortunes, the Middlesbrough-born magnate has discovered belatedly that the turning circle of a football club, even after a thorough refit, can be frust- ratingly slow and that the vessel requires skilful navigation through the choppy waters of the Premiership. Last time, as he concedes, when Boro were promoted and attempted to leave harbour like a speedboat they foundered on the rocks of premature ambition.

This season, with his team exceeding possibly even his own expectations as they face Nottingham Forest at home today, things will be entirely different from 1995. "Then, we tried to move Middlesbrough on at pace, but the days when a club could just spend a certain amount of money, maybe buy four or five players at pounds 3m each, and if not be assured of success, seriously increase their chances, have gone. To accelerate your progress in today's market is virtually impossible. It has to be a lot slower," Gibson admits. "We ended up paying the price because we didn't allow ourselves sufficient time to get to know the characters we had signed, and bed them in. But, that said, it was great fun finding out. We all had a few sleepless nights but looking back, I don't think the fans would have changed it.

"Of course, we had doubts about buying Juninho and others, but I wouldn't have changed those 18 months for anything in the world. It was perhaps the most exciting in the club's history. Two cup finals, relegation, it was pure theatre."

Not that Boro's recent reputation for wheeling and dealing in the precious gem market of football is likely to change. "We are realistic, and we think we have a squad capable of sustaining itself comfortably in this league, but it's highly unlikely that the squad we have now is the one that will finish the season," Gibson says. "We're constantly looking to strengthen it, and if the right player comes along that Bryan wants, he can go and get him."

However, the chairman insists that Robson's apparently unlimited budget is a myth. "There is no bottomless pit," he maintains. "The fact is that his transfer deals have been quite extraordinary. He has bought players and sold them on at a considerable profit. If you look at his net transfer spending it averages out at less than pounds 3m per season. People say he's spent pounds 45m-pounds 50m, but those players haven't all stayed at the club. They've moved on for various reasons and we've always profited from it. We made money on Nick Barmby, made a lot of money on Juninho, a small amount on Emerson, had a good return on Paul Merson, all players who we would have wished to retain. It shows that Bryan's judgement in a player is very good."

Whether Paul Gascoigne will be one of the more astute acquisitions of the former England captain remains to be seen. Even before Gascoigne began his treatment for alcoholism, the bar-room jury was out. But Gibson's faith remains unswerving. "Every player you sign brings with him some risk, but that's the business we're in. We believed he was worth the money that we paid for him. He's done a very good job for us up to now, but we didn't buy Gazza for six months, but for three and a half years.

"What annoys me is the amateur psychiatrists and even the professional ones who have never met him offering their view. I find him a smashing lad and enjoy his company. The Gazza portrayed in the press is completely different to the one I know. Bloody hell! Does he work in training. He's a great example to the other lads. And whenever we need anything done in the community, he's always first to volunteer."

And will he play some part today? "I know the answer to that, but Bryan would give me a bollocking if I was to tell you. All I can say is that at the moment he looks tremendously fit and well, and hungry to play." We'll take that as a "yes" then.

Gibson, who was brought up on a Middlesbrough council estate, was first taken to games by his father. It was when the club got into financial difficulties in the mid-Eighties that he stepped in as a member of a consortium that rescued it. "I believed the club was not going forward as it should be and I took control five years ago."

That takeover was followed by Robson's arrival as player-manager in 1994, and the extension of his contract recently coincided with his name being touted as a possible successor to Glenn Hoddle. However, Gibson claims: "Because we are not a plc, things have always been done very informally here. Bryan and I shook hands on a deal quite some time ago, long before the Glenn Hoddle situation arose. Bryan went public just to end the speculation. He's a tremendous asset to the club and we see ourselves going forward under his leadership and guidance. It gives us continuity and stability and they're very important. His contract is unbreachable. The last thing I want is a manager worrying about what's going on behind him. I want him to worry about what's going on in front of him, on the pitch."

For the moment, Gibson's only target is 45 points, and safety from relegation, although he admits: "Europe would be a dream." He adds: "As you will appreciate from his playing days you don't have to set Bryan targets or standards. He does that himself."