Aitor Karanka: the man behind Middlesbrough's rise
On the 13th of November 2013, Middlesbrough football club appointed the first overseas manager in the club's 141 year history.
Tinkering on the brink of relegation to the third tier of English football and with an ominous cloud engulfing Teesside, the Middlesbrough hot seat had somewhat become a poisoned chalice. Inexperienced former Real Madrid assistant manager Aitor Karanka was bestowed the keys to the Teesside throne tasked with trying to keep the struggling outfit in the second tier. What happened next surprised just about everyone…
Upon arriving in the North East, Aitor Karanka had a perspicuous objective: engineer a path for Middlesbrough to return back to the promise land of the English Premier League. Picking up the adequate points for survival in the remaining half of the season was the recognisable plan.Throughout his first season at the helm, Middlesbrough kept a remarkable fifteen clean sheets. Rapidly, Aitor Karanka was transforming the club into a force to be reckoned with: his meticulous tactics and his team’s ruthless execution of game plans were catching the eye of onlookers. Finishing the season 12th in the table, Karanka had steadied a sinking ship and with the help of Chairman Steve Gibson was preparing to propel Middlesbrough towards the promise land- the English Premier League.
Had Middlesbrough finally found their saviour?
Organised, resilient and determined, Middlesbrough marched into the 2014/2015 Sky bet Championship season with a new found optimism- free flowing football in the final third helping them breeze past Birmingham City on the opening day was a sign of things to come. Jose Mourinho, then of Chelsea, shipped promising youngster Patrick Bamford off to work with his amigo Aitor in the North East. Taking Bamford under his wing, Karanka quickly established an exciting front line with the Chelsea loanee playing a pivotal piece of a Middlesbrough jigsaw, which proved to be a piece missing as the club found out on the 25th of May 2015. Defying all expectations, Middlesbrough had gone from the edge of despair to the brink of paradise in such a short space of time. All that was in their way from a return to the Premier League was Norwich City- a side they had already dismantled at the Riverside earlier on in the season. Preparing for the game, Karanka remained ice cold as the temperature intensified around him. However, with the whole world watching Karanka's side froze as a red hot Norwich blistered their way back into the top flight thanks to an electrifying first half. Remaining positive- something which he was keen to instil into his side- Karanka triumphantly declared his team would fight back stronger than ever. Putting pen to paper on a new four year contract, the Spaniard had stamped down his mark on Middlesbrough with the club firm favourites to return to the top tier.
In the summer of 2015, former fan favourite Stewart Downing, West Ham's player of the season the year before, returned to his hometown club to the jubilation of the fans of the Teeside club. Signalling their intentions to not slip up again, Middlesbrough also recruited prolific championship striker David Nugent (who would later be joined in the Middlesbrough attack by Jordan Rhodes). Unsurprisingly, Middlesbrough found themselves perched on top of the Sky Bet Championship tree at Christmas with brick wall like defending paving the way for their counter attacking style of play to crack through their helpless opponents. A rocking Riverside was bursting with belief as a town trapped in the dark dungeons of the Sky Bet Championship were finally breaking free. Heading into March-a pivotal part of the season- Middlesbrough had only won three of their last ten matches.
To this day, it is still unknown what actually happened during a whirlwind week at Middlesbrough Football clubs training headquarters. Previously, Aitor Karanka had spoken of his special bond with his players. However, during a remarkable chain of events in the direct aftermath of a defeat to relegation riddled Rotherham in South Yorkshire, the Middlesbrough head coach reportedly told his players he did not want to manage them. Fast approaching was a trip to another relegation doomed side Charlton Athletic, a match Aitor Karanka later confessed he watched in his living room shouting at his television. Seemingly on a smooth path to promotion, Middlesbrough had crashed straight into trouble, the club in turmoil as the hierarchy of the club desperately pleaded with Karanka to carry on.
Despite various media reports claiming Aitor Karanka had left his position as Middlesbrough head coach, the Spaniard returned to the dugout for the next game.
After that disastrous performance against Charlton, the Teeside outfit didn’t lose another game for the remainder of the season. Like a wizard casting a spell, Karanka had seemingly overseen the return of Middlesbrough's magic touch. Reaching the climax of one of the most exciting seasons in the Championships recent history, Middlesbrough hosted Brighton with the knowledge that a draw would see them edge over the incredibly close finish line. On a gloomy afternoon in early May, Middlesbrough regained their place amongst the countries elite, an emotional Karanka declaring his overwhelming pride in front of a sold-out home crowd. A town tragically hit by a staggering amount of job losses and with the death of “the voice of Teeside” Ali Brownlee fresh in the minds of the locals, Teesiders had a reason to smile again.
Memories that will last a lifetime were created by Aitor Karanka and his side in that outstanding promotion winning season, capturing the hearts of a town on a downward spiral of despair. Keeping Middlesbrough in English footballs first division was always going to be an incredibly tough job for Karanka. Unsurprisingly, he parted company with Middlesbrough Football club on the 16th of March 2017 with the club fighting in the heat of a relegation battle. According to Chairman Steve Gibson, Aitor Karanka ‘sacrificed’ himself for Middlesbrough when the two agreed going separate ways was best for the club.
Without a doubt, when the dust has settled the Basque will look back on his time at Middlesbrough with the fondest of memories. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, Aitor Karanka and Middlesbrough Football Clubs fairy-tale didn’t have a happy ending… although it was an incredible read.