Simon Hart: Aitor Karanka using his experience of working with Jose Mourinho and winning European Cups to help Middlesbrough
Life beyond the Premier League
Wednesday 05 March 2014
Aitor Karanka has never forgotten his first trip to the north-east of England. It was October 1994 and he was making his full European debut for Athletic Bilbao in a Uefa Cup tie against Kevin Keegan's high-flying Newcastle United.
"I have great memories of that," he recalls with a smile. "Newcastle at the time were right up there. I was 21 and it's those games, at the start of your career, that leave a mark." It certainly did. "There was Peter Beardsley, Andy Cole, Lee Clark, [Philippe] Albert, [Darren] Peacock, [Pavel] Srnicek, the goalkeeper," he says, reeling off that Newcastle team. "After 70 minutes we were losing 3-0 and suddenly we got back to 3-2. The second leg at San Mames was a fiesta – we won 1-0."
That was his introduction to a region which, following his appointment as Middlesbrough head coach in November, he now calls home. He is the Teessiders' first foreign manager yet sees common ground between the north-east and his native Basque country with its steel and shipbuilding industries, not to mention the tradition of producing footballers.
"From day one I noticed a certain similarity," he says. "I would have liked to come as a player [a possible transfer to Boro broke down on deadline day in January 2005] and when the opportunity came up as coach, I didn't hesitate."
For the 40-year-old, this is his first managerial post after roles as Spain's Under-16 coach and Jose Mourinho's No 2 at Real Madrid, where he provided the local knowledge he will now seek from Riverside old boy Craig Hignett, installed as his assistant on Monday. Making the step up, he acknowledges, represents "a very big change", and though the sight of him in his office at Boro's impressive Rockliffe Park training ground suggests a man at ease with his surroundings, he accepts there is work to be done at the Championship's 14th-placed club.
The former Spain centre-back has tightened up Boro's defence – with six clean sheets in nine games – but they are struggling at the other end, where a club-record goal drought was stretched to a seventh match last Saturday when the officials failed to see Jacob Butterfield's shot cross the line at Sheffield Wednesday.
"I don't want it to become an obsession for my players because then it gets worse," says a "frustrated" Karanka. "The forwards need confidence. I am calm about it because the mood is really good and the professionalism."
A rigorous profession- alism is to be expected under a man who spent three years working alongside the "methodical" Mourinho. "With him you learn something every minute," Karanka reflects. "You learn tactics, you learn how to manage a group, you learn about everything. I was lucky to learn from the best." The biggest lesson may surprise those accustomed to Mourinho's sometimes Machiavellian public pronouncements. "He is always honest and fair," he explains. "He is not the typical coach who leaves things unsaid – he treats all players the same, something that in my three months here I recognise as essential."
Karanka turned down Mourinho's offer to follow him to Chelsea as he was ready to "start on my own". Their relationship has since facilitated the loan signing of midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah to Boro, yet Mourinho is not his only influence: his father, Fernando, was a football coach in their home town of Vitoria, while as a youngster at Bilbao, he worked with Jupp Heynckes, the manager who later took him to Madrid where he won two Champions Leagues. "He changed the philosophy of Bilbao," he says of Heynckes. "Bilbao were more influenced by the British game and this German coach came in and gave it a mini-revolution – a short passing game, less direct."
Does he plan to do the same at Boro? "The philosophy is to win games," he says. "I can have my ideal way to play, which is Spanish football – I've worked with Spain's youth teams after all – but I'd be wrong if I came here and wanted to play like the Spanish national team. I don't have the players. [But] I want to play on the ground, keep possession and it is something I try to transmit to the players."
So far Karanka has brought over one player from Spain, Madrid B team goalkeeper Tomas Mejias, and more may follow, though he insists the supply line from Boro's fine academy – whose latest graduate of note, defender Ben Gibson, is the nephew of club owner Steve – will remain open. "What is clear is that if players come from Spain or wherever it will be because they are better than the ones here, and it will always be about Middlesbrough having the best possible team," he says. "This is a club which for its organisation, for its size, for the people who work here, deserves to be in the Premier League."
It will not be easy, but making more memories in the north-east is his aim.
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