Football in the North East of England is like no where else in the country. Dominated by the fortunes of Newcastle United and Sunderland, it has become something more akin to a soap opera than a sport in the area recently, particularly this season. Disaster has been held at bay for a while, but as time goes on, it closes in like a dark rain cloud, casting a shadow. Most people see both as intense rivals, while those down the road in Middlesbrough are hardly with friendly with either, too.
The harsh economic climate has raised something of a community spirit. Many bemoan the fortunes of the big clubs, currently struggling for Premier League safety, regardless of which side they are on. It looks more and more likely, with everyone else at least eight points clear of them both and Norwich City, that at least one of them will drop out of the top-flight. Middlesbrough have offered something of a beacon of hope this season, looking good to go the other way and reach the promised land, residing at the top end of the Championship.
‘Boro have endured their fair share of turmoil in recent years, from near extinction in 1986 and relegation in the 1990s to cup final defeats and a first ever trophy in 2004. Five years later they suffered the demotion that saw them drift into no-mans land, from which they are still recovering now. Comparatively, with local businessman and life-long fan Steve Gibson at the helm, they have been heading in the right direction for the main part. When Aitor Karanka replaced legendary former captain Tony Mowbray, who despite his status was in danger of getting the club embroiled in a battle to avoid the third tier of English football, as manager, it seemed like the final stage of the rebuilding process.
Gibson was showing the ambition and faith he was famous for, and the job on Teesside was not only a perfect fit for the Spaniard, but also an enticing challenge. Despite an impressive playing career at Real Madrid, winning the Champions League in 2002, it was his work as Jose Mourinho’s assistant which caught the eye.
When Mourinho took over in 2010, Karanka was working with the Spanish under-16s without any expectation of the promotion that was to come. The former Inter and Chelsea boss has his permanent staff who follow him where he goes, but he makes it his business to employ someone who understands the club to make the transition easier.
Karanka listened and learnt, and his stamp on Boro has been a particularly Mourinho-esque one. Defensively overall this season, you’ll have to go far to find a better side, having only conceded 23 goals and breaking a record for the longest time without letting one in earlier in the campaign. Despite the play-off final defeat to Norwich last year, everything seemed rosy as they challenged both Burnley and Hull City/ Karanka was a calm, intelligent man, the opposite character to those who led the area’s football teams into crisis.
That makes this week’s events all the more bizarre. Boro have struggled to return to the Premier League for the first time since 2009 for a range of reasons, but they have never been stronger than they are now. The January addition of Jordan Rhodes, a serial goalscorer at Championship goalscorer, from Blackburn Rovers plugged the only hole. Having led the table for long spells, a recent blip in form seemed natural, but it brought an explosive response from Karanka, who walked out on training, only to be told not to return the next day, or take charge of the 2-0 defeat at struggling Charlton Athletic on Sunday.
He pointed the finger at his players, claiming they didn’t have enough pride or passion. It looked as though there was no way back, but he is set to continue the charge. How this has helped an already delicate situation is far from clear, but the whole sequence shows that unwanted drama is not solely reserved for their higher-placed rivals.
Most Middlesbrough fans, naturally, have backed Karanka. He has proven to be the most significant appointment the club has made in a decade, and it is him who has dragged the club back towards the big time. Whether he can galvanise those he criticised so intensely again will prove his real challenge. For a long time it looked as though a Premier League return was nailed on because of Karanka, now it isn’t clear whether he is a help or a hindrance.
Everything seems to be falling apart for Middlesbrough at the wrong time again. Aitor Karanka has proven himself to be one of the most exciting coaches around during his time at the Riverside Stadium, but his outburst has called his temperament into question, and therefore he must prove it won’t impact on the rest of the season to save his reputation.
The house he has built is his, and there is no one better for the job. The problem for him is he may have made a small cut which needed healing into an open wound that could kill off Middlesbrough’s promotion hopes once again.