WHEN Aitor Karanka was appointed as Middlesbrough’s head coach in November, it was assumed his role would form part of a radical new structure that would transform the way the club conducted their business in the transfer market.
A director of football looked likely, arriving to oversee recruitment issues and identify the type of players to be pursued in future transfer windows.
Jorge Mendes, the Portuguese super-agent who counts Karanka and Jose Mourinho among his clients, was poised to play a pivotal role in club affairs, and with Steve Gibson talking about “having to be clever in the way we do things”, closer ties with a range of continental clubs looked likely.
Karanka’s role looked like being that of a classic European ‘head coach’. He would be presented with a group of players at the start of each season, and instructed to get the best out of them via his work on the training ground. As a Spaniard rooted in the structural norms of La Liga, where there is generally a clear distinction between the remit of those operating on the training ground and the sphere of influence controlled by those in the boardroom, he looked a perfect fit.
Yet six months on, and the anticipated revolution has not occurred. It is not going to happen this summer either, meaning Karanka will continue to look less like a ‘head coach’ and more like a ‘manager’ in the traditional British understanding of the word.
While Alan Pardew meekly accepts that he enjoys only a limited influence over what happens behind the scenes at Newcastle United, and Gustavo Poyet prepares to tackle Ellis Short head on in an attempt to wrest more control over recruitment issues at Sunderland, Karanka is pretty much lord of all he surveys at Middlesbrough.
Gary Gill’s promotion to the role of head of recruitment enables him to perform a crucial role in terms of identifying and scouting players, while Neil Bausor’s position as chief executive means he exerts a considerable influence when it comes to closing out deals.
When it comes to choosing players for the squad this summer, though, it is Karanka who will be the driving force.
Given his overseas background and limited experience in the Championship, that could be a dangerous situation. On all available evidence so far though, it looks like being one that could work.
At the very least, it means Middlesbrough will continue to benefit from Karanka’s close relationship with both Mourinho and a number of clubs in Spain.
Would Boro have got Kenneth Omeruo and Nathaniel Chalobah on loan this season had the former Real Madrid assistant not been in charge? It’s extremely unlikely, and the Chelsea duo have played a significant role in the club’s strong finish to the campaign.
There will be a concerted attempt to re-sign Omeruo in particular for another season, and if sources in London are to be believed, Mourinho appears to be conducive to the idea of the defender returning to the Riverside next term.
Similarly, Karanka continues to be in regular contact with a number of Spanish sides, and two players in particular have been identified as potential summer recruits. Those talks will be stepped up at the end of the season.
However, the notion of filling the team with a glut of overseas players has been firmly rejected, and that more than anything provides cause for considerable optimism as Karanka strengthens his grip on the tiller.
Having watched the Championship for more than six months now, the Boro boss has developed a firm opinion of what it takes to get out of the league. And contrary to what he might have believed when he was first appointed, that does not involve a host of Spanish 19-year-old’s trying to dribble their way through an opposition defence.
That is not to suggest Karanka will not attempt to play positive, passing football – far from it. But it does mean he has accepted that experience of English football’s second tier is crucial, and that in a league as relentless and competitive as the Championship, consistency of performance is key.
In the words of one key figure behind the scenes at Rockliffe Park: “The boss looks at Leicester and Burnley and sees two teams without superstars, but who play as a team and know what they’re going to give you every week.
“When we look for players this summer, we’ll be looking for players who give you a reliable seven each game. What you can’t have in the Championship is someone who’ll give you an eight or nine one week, but then a four or five the next.”
That probably explains Karanka’s lukewarm approach to Mustapha Carayol earlier in the season, although his firm admiration of Albert Adomah belies the notion that he is inherently suspicious of expressive players.
As was the case in January, Boro will continue to pursue targets they have been monitoring for quite a while. As a result, it would be no surprise to see Ross McCormack, who will be wanted by most of the sides in the Championship, and Chris Eagles, who is due to become a free agent at Bolton, featuring on the Teessiders’ wanted list.
As ever, the purchase of a proven centre-forward could be key, but they are not easy to recruit at Championship level and it will be interesting to see if a reborn Lukas Jutkiewicz is cast aside as readily as might have been expected in January.
There are some crucial questions to answer, but Karanka is clearly ready to tackle them head on. And while other North-East managers scramble around for a degree of influence over transfer matters, at least Middlesbrough’s manager knows exactly where he stands.
CHAMP OF THE WEEK
The Sunderland striker maintained his fine recent run as he scored two goals in his side’s crucial 4-0 win over Cardiff City. Short-listed for April’s Player of the Month award, his return from a loan spell at Leeds looks like being the turning point in the Black Cats’ season.
CHUMP OF THE WEEK
Darlington were beaten by the better side in their Evo-Stik League play-off semi-final on Wednesday, but things might well have been different had Kevin Mulraine not produced one of the worst refereeing performances I’ve ever seen. His decision not to send off Owen Roberts for the first-minute challenge that broke Leon Scott’s leg was a disgrace.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
DARLINGTON MOWDEN PARK vs MACCLESFIELD
On the pitch, Mowden’s final home game of the league season resulted in a four-point win over Macclesfield that secured a play-off place – with the Darlington side coming within a minute of winning promotion outright. It was the off the pitch where things were really impressive though, with the club attracting a crowd of 3,750 to The Northern Echo Arena and dispelling the notion that the stadium is destined to be a ‘white elephant’ forever.
CHARITY BET OF THE WEEKEND
Another blank weekend as Rolling Aces succumbed to Menorah’s sudden renaissance at Sandown. Thankfully, the Grand National win means we’re still comfortably in profit, but we could do with a positive result to crown Guineas weekend. Follow @scottwilsonecho on Twitter to discover tomorrow’s charity tip. Running total: £40.38