Leo Percovich is a cult hero at Middlesbrough, but the first-team coach’s chest-beating image hides a much more complex personality. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson sat down with the Uruguayan to discuss triumph, tragedy and the deep-rooted love that bonds him to the Middlesbrough fans.

THERE are plenty of words to describe Leo Percovich, Middlesbrough’s irrepressible bundle of energy doubling as a first-team coach. Proud perhaps. Or passionate. In the wake of Tuesday’s touchline explosion at the Riverside, maybe provocative would also do the trick. Ask the man himself though, and you’d be surprised with what he comes up with to describe his own character.

The Northern Echo: Former Middlesbrough goalkeeper coach Leo Percovich acknowledges the fans before the Sky Bet Championship Playoff match at the Riverside Stadium, MiddlesbroughFormer Middlesbrough goalkeeper coach Leo Percovich acknowledges the fans before the Sky Bet Championship Playoff match at the Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough

“There is something people do not know about me,” said Percovich, reclining in his chair at Boro’s Rockliffe Park training ground, less than 48 hours after he had helped spark the footballing equivalent of World War Three in the dying seconds of Boro’s 1-1 draw with Birmingham City. “I am actually quite shy.

“People see me going over to the fans at the end of the game, beating my chest, but I’m not sure that is really me. I am much shyer than that. Honestly. I don’t want that attention, I think, ‘Give all this to the team’. I would be happy with that. But at the same time, I see they are waiting for me now.

“I go over, and all of a sudden, there is something exploding in me that I want to share. When I go, it is like a powerful attraction, like a magnet. I feel their power and I explode myself. It is a real connection, but it is almost like it is happening outside my body. We are all together, and that is the big thing. If we are not together, we are not Middlesbrough. From the moment we start to divide, we are a different club. But this is a big family, and it is my family. Shy or not, you cannot know what that means.”

The Northern Echo: Leo Acknowledges the Middlesbrough crowdLeo Acknowledges the Middlesbrough crowd

My family. For all that football fans can be fiercely parochial, they tend to be sceptical of forming strong, emotional bonds with those involved at their club. It can take a lifetime for outsiders to be accepted, let alone championed as ‘one of the fans’ own’, so the esteem in which Percovich is held among the Riverside faithful is genuinely remarkable.

Watch the 51-year-old Uruguayan salute the hardcore support, especially after an away game, and you are witnessing mutual love and respect at its rawest. The fist pumps on the pitch are reciprocated in the stands. When Percovich points to the Middlesbrough badge on his jacket and kisses it, it is more than mere posturing; when the fans break into a chant of ‘Leo, Leo, Leo’, it is more than a simple acknowledgment of a coach giving his thanks.

How did such a deep-rooted relationship develop? It was apparent during Percovich’s first spell at the club, when he was a goalkeeping coach working under Aitor Karanka but was generally regarded as the Spaniard’s de facto number two, but would almost certainly have disappeared had he remained in his native South America after leaving Teesside when Garry Monk was appointed in the summer of 2017. Instead, two things happened that changed Percovich’s life, and his standing in the eyes of the Middlesbrough supporters, entirely.

The first was utterly tragic. In December 2017, Percovich was driving his wife, Juliana, and their children, Valentina, Pietro and Antonella, on a 300-mile trip from Rio de Janeiro to Belo Horizonte to spend Christmas with Juliana’s family.

Despite being driven at well below the 60kmph speed limit, Percovich’s car careered out of control, tumbling from a 25m bridge onto the concrete below. His youngest daughter, Antonella, then five, died before she reached hospital. A week later, on Christmas Eve, his eldest child, Valentina, also passed away.

The Northern Echo: Leo Percovich was Middlesbrough's goalkeeping coach under Aitor KarankaLeo Percovich was Middlesbrough's goalkeeping coach under Aitor Karanka

His son, Pietro, eight at the time, was left in a coma for three weeks, while his wife fractured her pelvis and he was left with broken ribs. Unsurprisingly, the incident caused Percovich and the remaining members of his family irreparable damage.

For months on end, he tended to his son in hospital, and it was at this time that his second life-changing event took place. He realised how much Middlesbrough had come to mean to him. He was back in South America, but he did not feel at home. Pietro was in pain, confined to a wheelchair, but all he wanted to talk about was his schoolfriends back in Croft-on-Tees. It was as dark a time as it was possible to imagine, yet in Middlesbrough, and his memories of his life before, there was a sliver of light.

“I always say that life is about moments in time,” said Percovich. “Your life is enriched by how many moments you share, good ones and bad. I had left Middlesbrough and I prepared myself for a different chapter in my life. It was a challenge to go to Brazil, to learn as a manager and to prepare to be the next manager of Fluminense.

“My life was heading in a different direction, but then three months later, I had the accident, the fatal accident when everything happened. And straight away, Middlesbrough was there and I had their support. That meant so much to me.

“I remember the time when Pietro was in a wheelchair. We were desperately trying to check he was okay, and all he wanted to do was talk about Middlesbrough. I remember a day not long after the accident, we should have been doing things in the hospital, but we spent all day trying to get an internet connection so Pietro could watch the Middlesbrough game.

“I remember him sitting in the wheelchair watching. Everyone else there was talking about Brazilian football, but his team was Middlesbrough. He didn’t care about Brazil, he cared about Middlesbrough. I was with him and we would follow every game online, and that gave him hope. It meant he could dream.

The Northern Echo:

“At that time, Grant Leadbitter was the team captain, and he sent a shirt to Pietro from every single player. He sent 25 shirts. That’s a big box! Can you imagine that? Every shirt was signed by the players with an individual message to the family. You cannot buy that. I don’t think you will find that anywhere else. It has to be a special team for that, a real family. Some teams might send one shirt with everyone signing it, but that was proof of the extra love.”

Further proof arrived the following summer when Percovich travelled back to England for the first time since the accident, attending the first leg of Middlesbrough’s play-off semi-final with Aston Villa.

It was an emotionally-charged occasion, with Pietro accompanying him onto the pitch, waving a huge red-and-white flag, as the Teesside faithful reaffirmed their solidarity.

“That day was unforgettable,” said Percovich. “The club invited us over for a couple of days, to show their support and the love of the people. When we went to the stadium, I said I would like to go to the dressing room to give a hug to the players. They said, ‘No, you will go to the pitch’. I said, ‘No, I cannot go onto the field’. But they said, ‘The people want to say hello to you, they are expecting it’.

“I felt ashamed. I said, ‘What am I going to say?’ I thought they wouldn’t want to know. But when I walked out and saw everyone standing there, supporting us as a family, that connection was incredible. That was one of the biggest moments in my life.

“It was a whole mixture of emotions. I walked in there to receive the support because I lost my girls, but I was completely knocked over by the way we were received. It was one of the few moments when I thought I might break down, but I had to keep walking because my boy was there next to me. I thought I would have to stop, I couldn’t keep walking, but I saw him so happy, feeling all this love, so I walked next him, staying strong, and that was an amazing moment.

“It was so powerful. You cannot fake that or make it up. It will stay with me the rest of my life, and also for Pietro. It was massive for him to get all the love and respect, and he still has the picture of him walking onto the field with the flag. He had only been two times before, once as a mascot with his sisters and then when he came to celebrate with me after promotion. This was the third time, and it will stay with him forever. He will feel the loss of his sisters all his life, but that showed him he is not alone. He felt the love of the crowd that night, and it has stayed with him.”

With his bond to Teesside reconnected, Percovich jumped at the chance to re-join Middlesbrough earlier this summer when Jonathan Woodgate approached him to offer the role of first-team coach in his new backroom set-up.

Speak to Woodgate about their relationship, and it is clear the fist-pumping, rabble-rousing image Percovich has cultivated in the last few years barely scratches the surface of his talents or influence.

Prior to the accident that turned his life upside-down, Percovich was being groomed as Fluminense’s next head coach. That doesn’t happen if all you can do is beat your chest. He is respected within Rockliffe Park as an astute and innovative coach, leading sessions, generating ideas and playing a pivotal role in Woodgate’s evolution into a successful manager.

“I will tell you something about me,” said Percovich. “I love to read. I don’t just read the newspapers or WhatsApp, I read books, I am a study man. People sometimes don’t see this because maybe my passion and energy can hide this. But if you go to my house, the best present you can give me is a book. I will read all kinds of books. Anything I get from those books, I take it and bring it to the club to share. It can be tactics, psychology, mentality – anything you can take something from.”

Eventually, Percovich wants to strike out for himself in management, and his long-term dream is to one day manage Middlesbrough. For now though, he is happy and content working under Woodgate, learning from the former Boro skipper and making his own contribution to his club’s rise up the Championship table.

Other ambitions? Time for another surprise. As part of his rehabilitation from the injuries caused by his car crash, Percovich took up sailing. In 2023, he plans to be part of a team of sailors that will circumnavigate the globe.

“I won’t be able to do it all, but there are eight legs and I am hoping to do at least two or three of them,” he said. “I had never done it before my recovery. When I was doing my therapy, I was trying to find different things I could do, and when I was Brazil, someone suggested sailing.

“I was put in touch with a couple of people who went to Antarctica, and had a lot of experience. They took me out in the sailing boat for four or five days, into the middle of nowhere. I loved it. It is a big challenge because you feel fears you have never felt before.

“When you look around and don’t see anything, it makes you think about things. The vessel can move for a whole day, and you don’t see anything apart from the sea. It is a great experience. I felt a real connection straight away, and discovered I had a bit of a skill for it.

“I have got to know six or seven people who have sailed solo around the world and think they are amazing. When you are alone like that, just you and your boat, you learn what your true values are. You are totally isolated from everything, just your mind and feelings, and that teaches you things about yourself. I would love to experience that for myself, and represent this club on a real adventure.” With Percovich, adventure is pretty much guaranteed.