Aitor Karanka sits facing a window, contemplating the pristine green training pitches at the bottom of the hill and the treetops defining dense woodland beyond. Middlesbrough’s manager is in the upstairs canteen at Rockliffe Park, the club’s training ground set in undulating parkland on the border between County Durham and North Yorkshire.
Hidden away in a village south of Darlington and sharing its site with a luxury five-star spa hotel, Rockliffe tends to make Boro an “easy sell” to prospective signings and, almost exactly three years ago, Karanka proved no different.
“When Steve Gibson, the chairman, saw my face the first time I came here he knew I wanted the job,” said the former Real Madrid defender and, later, assistant manager under José Mourinho. “I knew this was the right place to start my managerial career. After seeing this environment I knew I was lucky but the team wasn’t good enough for everything we have here. Steve Gibson said: ‘We have the facilities, the stadium, the crowd’ – but he needed a team to fit.”
As Boro’s first foreign manager, Karanka prevented potential relegation from the Championship in 2014 before presiding over play-off final disappointment the following season and automatic promotion in May.
His side are holding their own in the Premier League and entertain Chelsea on Sunday on the back of draws at Manchester City and Arsenal and a home win against Bournemouth.
Along the way, the once halting English which made his media unveiling in 2013 rather excruciating has been replaced by an ease and fluency that led to him serving as an ITV studio pundit during England’s friendly against Spain on Tuesday.
No longer a new boy, the 43-year-old Basque is the fifth-longest-serving manager currently working in the Premier League. “That’s a reflection of how tough football is,” he reflects. “I’m so lucky to have Steve Gibson.”
The fear among Boro fans is that Karanka regards the club as a stepping stone in much the same way that, a decade ago, the then extremely ambitious Steve McClaren did. “It’s always difficult to look too far into the future,” he says, slightly cautiously. “You never know what might happen.
“If we’d lost to Arsenal, Bournemouth and Manchester City, what would have happened to me? I don’t know. If results are bad, we know what’s possible. Football’s all about results. You can never get comfortable in this job, never.
“I can’t think about what will happen in three, four weeks. I’d be making a mistake if I were to think that two or three years ahead I could achieve this or that. Football doesn’t work like that. As a player you have dreams but, as a coach, it’s different.
“Looking too far ahead can be a big mistake. But, if I can be here long term, that’s good; it means I’m doing the job right and the club’s progressing.”
Stability is clearly attractive. “Right now, I feel it would be difficult, if not impossible to find another club like this because of the relationship I have with the chairman, the relationships I have with everybody,” he acknowledges. “In Spain, also there are not many clubs like this one. Maybe Bilbao – but you cannot always find a Bilbao or a Middlesbrough.
“Here, the chairman’s my friend; I don’t think there are many managers in the Premier League who can call their chairman a friend. In the worst moments, knowing you have a very good relationship, that’s when it really means something special.”
If Gibson remains a model of consistency, Karanka is much altered from the sometimes impatient, invariably intense, figure who arrived from Madrid. In part this evolution to a slightly more relaxed, measured demeanour has been a gradual metamorphosis but it is hard not to regard his mini-meltdown last March – when he was briefly suspended after a stormy training session, and missed a defeat at Charlton – as a catalyst.
“Yes, I’ve changed,” he says. “I have learned so much in these three years. I’m a lot calmer now. With experience, you learn to react in a better way, be more patient.”
As he chats, lightheartedly, to the left-back George Friend and jokes with the winger Adama Traoré, Karanka seems very different from his sometimes rather stern, robotic public image. Moreover it appears that the moments of creative tension as Boro strove for promotion and he endeavoured to rouse a once quiet, noncombative dressing room have passed.
“Every day my family and I are more pleased to have come here,” he says with the conviction of a true anglophile. Three years ago his young son and daughter spoke only Spanish. “Today their English is perfect,” reports Karanka. “They have posh North Yorkshire accents and they love it here. It’s a lovely area.”
Independence is evidently suiting the man once routinely labelled Mourinho’s “former assistant”. “Working with José is part of my past and I can’t deny it,” he says. “We’re still really good friends. But now I have to change that story with my own achievements.”