THE most successful manager in Middlesbrough’s history will return to the Riverside Stadium for the first time this afternoon, with Aitor Karanka admitting Steve McClaren’s achievements had a role to play in the Spaniard’s own decision to take over at the Riverside Stadium.
During McClaren’s five years on Teesside he raised the club’s profile to a whole new level, by leading Boro in to back-to-back European campaigns and a UEFA Cup final following League Cup glory in 2004.
Ten years on and that trophy success at the Millennium Stadium remains Middlesbrough’s only major honour in 138 years of existence. And, after spending the last five seasons outside of the Premier League, supporters cherish the memories of such glory days.
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Karanka, who left Athletic Bilbao in the summer McClaren left to take over England in 2006, almost signed for Middlesbrough and his awareness of what was achieved under the Yorkshireman helped persuade him to succeed Tony Mowbray last October.
“When I was a player I had the opportunity to come here,” said Karanka. “This was a club I always knew about in my head because of what has been done here over the years.
“Whenever I looked at the Premier League table or the Championship table, I always looked for Middlesbrough because I have always known about them as a club and had good feelings about this club.”
What Karanka must come up with is a way of taking Middlesbrough back to the Premier League, probably next season given how there are only seven matches remaining and 11 points shy of the play-offs. But will European football ever return to Teesside?
“It will be very difficult to get back in to Europe,” said Karanka. “The best way to get this success again is to work hard every day here. If you think about the Europa League while you are in the Championship then people will think you are crazy. They are right. The first thing is that we have to work here every day and we will see after that whether we can get greater success.
“The clubs that have gone up through the divisions and qualified for Europe have shown only hard work gets you there. The opposite of that too is that teams have thought they are better than they are because they qualified for Europe and they are now in the Championship. Those clubs have lost a lot of money. We have to improve every day, not in one or two years thinking about what we can do in the Europa League.”
McClaren, who went on to lead Twente to the Eredivisie title in Holland as well as manage his country and in Germany with Wolfsburg, has proven his managerial qualities again since taking over at Pride Park in September. The Rams had been struggling to get in to the top six, but are all but certain of a play-off battle at the end of the season under McClaren.
Karanka is full of admiration for his opposite number and believes Middlesbrough supporters should give the former boss a warm reception.
He said: “Derby will be a difficult game because they are one of the best teams in the league. They have a very good manager, he is the most successful manager in the history of our club. It will be a difficult game but we need to win games and at home. I am confident for Saturday.
“It could be an emotional occasion when he comes. When a manager like Steve comes back to his club, his first club, where he won the cup and where he enjoyed a lot of success, it is important for our supporters to say thanks again and hello. He deserves a nice welcome.”
Unless Middlesbrough can take 21 points from the final 21 points available to them then a top six finish is highly unlikely. He does not want to predict where Middlesbrough can reach under his guidance, but is satisfied there is enough ambition to fill the fans with hope.
“I hope this club can get back to the Premier League, to Europe one day, it would be fantastic,” he said. “I am working every day to get success. It is difficult because we need to work every day and focus on the next day, it’s not about thinking too far ahead.
“We can’t think about Capital One Cups or Europe, we have to focus on the next game. I came here because I thought Middlesbrough were a club with potential. That’s why I am here.
“I wanted to be here to add to my experience, to take an opportunity to try to take a club forward. When I met with Steve Gibson (chairman) and Neil Bausor (chief executive) I realised that this is a club keen to improve every day. It’s a club who want to recover and rediscover past times.”