Arsenal vs Middlesbrough: Boro all in it together as Aitor Karanka puts team first ahead of FA Cup tie

The club’s first foreign manager and Jose Mourinho’s former assistant has taken them to Championship summit and an FA Cup tie with Arsenal by extolling the virtues of teamwork. Michael Walker reports from a very happy Riverside

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The Independent Football

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 through accident or design saw the Teesside club managed only by men from England or Scotland, not even a token Welshman or Irishman.

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

When Aitor Karanka became manager of Middlesbrough in November 2013 it signalled 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 over the phone, 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.

“When I got Bryan Robson, for example, we were looking for enthusiasm, knowledge, status and we got that. With Steve [McClaren], everyone spoke highly of him. He lit all the fuses, if you like.

“I spoke to Peter Kenyon, who’s a close friend of mine over many years. Pete has these unbelievable contacts. I said: ‘Help me. This has to be right this time.’

“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.’

“Pete said: ‘Wait a minute, I’ll call him.’ Pete came back into the room and said: ‘He’ll be here tomorrow.’

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.

Via super-agent Jorge Mendes, whom Karanka knew through three years alongside Jose Mourinho at Real, he also had that connection to Kenyon, the former Manchester United and Chelsea chief executive, who in turn knew Gibson. Everything is internationalised.

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

One of them, the scorer of the opening goal, is Patrick Bamford. The striker is evidence of another strand in Middlesbrough’s recovery: Chelsea. Kenyon is part of that and in his 15 months at Boro, 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. It is not about the individual.

Asked on Thursday about changes he has made, Karanka replied: “The mentality. When I came here, especially the players, my first view was that they were concerned about their own performance and behaviour. At the beginning it was difficult to transmit to them that it is always about the team. We had problems, but then we begin to win and people understood.”

Karanka moved seamlessly on to Mourinho. “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.

Twenty points better off than at the same stage last season, Middlesbrough have conceded just 20 goals in 30 Championship matches.

As he said, there have been “problems”. Middlesbrough did not score in seven consecutive matches last season and there were grumbles from the stands as recently as August when Boro had six points after five games and lay 16th. By Boxing Day, there were 32,000 at the Riverside to see Boro beat Nottingham Forest 3-0.

“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.”

Gibson identified another change: mood. “I see a very happy club,” he said. “Aitor involves everyone, from me to the tea lady, he has time for all of us. He thinks that’s very important. If a player goes to knock on his door, he’ll say: ‘It’s not about you. Come to me and talk about the squad.’ Everybody is onside.

“There’s a togetherness at the club I’ve not seen since Bryan Robson was here. Players aren’t walking off the training pitch, they’re skipping off. There’s no drudge, there’s happiness.”