TFN Editor Hugo Greenhalgh argues that the globalisation of the Football League can only be a good thing for the national game…
“This is a real change for our club but football is global now…and we were searching for a first-class coach”
In a year when the future of English football has been debated as intensely as ever, Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson’s comments last week made for interesting reading. Gibson was speaking to the media as he unveiled former Real Madrid assistant Aitor Karanka as Boro’s new manager. By his own admission, he was breaking out of the mould of the “little Englander” in appointing the first non-British manager to the Teesside club. Gibson carried on, “Greg Dyke’s got his self-interest which is the FA and I’ve got my self-interest which is Middlesbrough Football Club”, referring to Dyke’s recent speech bemoaning the lack of English coaches as a contributing factor in the decline of the national game.
The FA Chairman may have had a point that the presence of foreign players and managers can stifle the progress of their English counterparts. However, if handled responsibly, a foreign influence can surely only bring benefits to England’s archaic football convention. Not only is Karanka an exciting appointment for Boro fans, it is a move that hints at a developing symbiotic relationship in Europe’s football landscape. Whilst the English leagues have much to gain from continental involvement, it would appear that European managers themselves are keen to coach in this country.
The Karanka appointment is not without recent precedent. Following the departure of Gus Poyet from Brighton, the names of English stalwarts Alan Curbishley, Steve Coppell and even Harry Redknapp were bandied around. However, Brighton instead went for a lesser-known name by opting for Oscar Garcia. As a player Garcia spent 15 years at Barcelona, rising through their academy, into the B team and then the first team. He played under Johan Cruyff, Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal, while Pep Guardiola was his teammate and contemporary.
Garcia’s credentials as a coach were also impressive. He had been assistant manager to Cruyff for the Catalonia national side before coaching at Barcelona’s La Masia for two years. At this time, it would not be unreasonable to see him as fourth in line to Guardiola’s job as Head Coach behind Tito Villanova and Eusebio Sacristán. How many other Championship managers can claim such a wealth of experience working within one of football’s most successful dynasties? But not only was Garcia something of a coup for Brighton, he was also very eager to experience the English game. Speaking in June he said, “I’ve always been fascinated by English football. The atmosphere, the competitive spirit – you always see two teams that want to attack, to win and not sit back.”
Garcia and Karanka never locked horns in El Clasico but they will now do so across the dugout in the Championship. It has been widely reported that Karanka turned down the Crystal Palace job to join Boro. This was a sensible decision. Rather than take a ride on a sinking ship in the Premier League, the Spaniard can treat Boro as something of a clean slate. The club already have a “cultural exchange programme” with Atletico Madrid that will allow players to come over on loan, whilst also opening up the possibility for young Englishmen to experience football in Spain.
While Dyke and co. could cry foul at the possibility of foreigners taking the place of homegrown players, Karanka opens new doors for Middlesbrough. Although he has never managed a league game, three years spent as Mourinho’s number two at Real Madrid will surely prove a valuable experience. Before that, Karanka managed the Spain Under 16s and he maintains a strong interest in youth football. Speaking on his arrival at Middlesbrough he said, “Our academy is brilliant and I believe 100% in promoting youth.”
So how do we measure the Garcia and Karanka appointments against previous foreign appointments in the lower leagues? John McGee recently wrote an excellent piece on the Football League and immigration which highlighted the post-Bosman era of players. This has seen a growing, but largely positive, presence of overseas players since the mid-1990s, a generation who are now old enough to be entering management. Such appointments in the Football League, and lower echelons of the Premier League, have tended to come about through club ties or recognised reputations in this country. For example, Roberto Martinez was already a fan favourite at Wigan and familiar with the club and its setup, making him a logical appointment.
Similarly, the careers of Gianfranco Zola, Gus Poyet and Paolo di Canio, to name three, enabled them to get posts at clubs in the second and third tiers of English football, perhaps at the expense of more talented but less well-known English coaches. This is not to question the ability of these names, as Zola and Poyet have certainly shown some managerial nous so far. However, their reputations on the pitch rather than the touchline fast-tracked their career paths. This is interesting when contrasted with the German manager Uwe Rösler for instance, a Manchester City legend in his playing days. Rösler but had already managed over 150 games in Norway before he took the Brentford job, for which he has received due appreciation.
What this handful of managers do add to the Football League is fresh ideas and perspectives. Mediocre British managers will come and go (quite what Nigel Clough achieved at Derby County to earn him a job at Sheffield United is a mystery), but Brighton and Middlesbrough deserve recognition for making appointments beyond the usual tried and tested names. A two-way relationship appears be forming as Football League clubs are prepared to gamble on foreign managers and these managers themselves, who see England as an opportunity to cut their teeth and test their ability. There is a real sense that some European managers want to be here, bringing with them a vision that could help to shake up English football. We shouldn’t fear their presence in our leagues but rather, embrace it.