Aitor Karanka turns up for tapas in Teesside ready to talk tactics and trophies. He’s suitably turned out in the football-manager chic of neat Hugo Boss blazer, natty waistcoat, Breitling watch and healthy summer glow.
We’re in the very Brit-rustic Chadwicks Inn, Maltby, meeting ahead of the first home game of the season. A season he hopes will more than match the last when hopes of Premiership glory were heartbreakingly dashed for Boro fans in the Wembley play-offs.
His eye is on the Premiership prize, as are the expectations of many thousands of football fans, which is pressure to bear big style. Our chat comes the evening after a solid win at Oldham Athletic in the first round of the Capital One Cup. ‘Que Sera Sera’ springs to mind – is another trip to Wembley on the cards?
“I hope so,” he smiles.
“Last season was an amazing experience. Unfortunately we missed out on the reward but what we can say is that one day we played at Wembley.”
Some say Madrid and Middlesbrough are worlds apart. He begs to differ. “We’re very comfortable here. I am from the north of Spain and I see the same characteristics, the people are very similar. Honest people”
Our football-meets-life conversation takes place in the inn’s restaurant area where staff start arriving with drinks and tapas, all very sociable. Of course, it’s impossible not to talk football with Aitor, Middlesbrough’s first-ever foreign manager, who has propelled the team with an electrifying Spanish touch since his arrival on Teesside in 2013.
With his take on modern football, his ability to read opponents, and his spell as Jose Mourinho’s number two, the 42-year-old certainly knows how to win games. Aitor has emerged from the ‘Special One’s’ shadow (with an equally fine sense of style) to establish himself as a top coach here in the North East. With some new strikers on the team-sheet, Middlesbrough are flying high and are set to grab their goals in more ways than one this season. Aitor Karanka has his sights set on the Premier League. That is his goal, and Boro fans are aching for him to send that ball firmly into the back of the net.
For Aitor, after a rollercoaster season, downtime this summer meant a trip to Madrid with his wife Ana, followed by a family trip to Miami with young son Ibai and daughter Nahia.
It was respite after one hellish season of highs and lows. The chase for a Premier League promotion spot went like this – a head-to-head battle for that prestigious second place position, an exciting lead up to the play-off final at Wembley and the not so exciting reality of a 2-0 defeat to the since promoted Norwich City.
But the Boro boss did manage to unwind this summer, reflecting on a nearly-there season as he spent quality time with his family in various parts of the globe.
“This summer I was lucky,” he says.
“I had a holiday with my wife and with my kids. It was nice because the previous summer had been so difficult as I had to work all over, but this summer was much better.
“I spent some time with my wife in Madrid. Our house is in Madrid. Our friends are in Madrid – so it’s our city,” he adds.
Speaking about his personal and professional life in his ‘adopted city’ he says, “I moved to Madrid when I was 23 until I was 28 and then we came back when I was 32 until the moment I started work here. But I am originally from the north of Spain, the Basque country.”
His playing career and his life have been predominantly in his Spanish homeland. He played as a youth at his home club, Deportivo Alavés before moving to Athletic Bilbao to start his professional career. He moved to Real Madrid for five seasons where he made over 90 appearances. In 2002 he moved back to Athletic Bilbao before ending his playing career with a short stint in Colorado.
He spent one season in the MLS (Major League Soccer), playing for the Colorado Rapids.
“We lived in Denver. Nahia, the little one, was six months old so it was a difficult experience for everybody, but we tried to do the same as we have done here. It was more difficult, but again, we tried to get to know the area. We adapted to the lifestyle that we were living out there and it was a really good experience, now we can remember that season well.”
As a classy and well-organised defender, aggression and intimidation was never part of his game plan.
Efficiency and the ability to pick out strengths and weaknesses in the opponent are what made Aitor such a >> respected defender in La Liga throughout his playing career; and it’s these exact traits that underpin his early managerial success at Middlesbrough.
Aitor and his young family are settling in a village on the outskirts of Teesside. And though some may say Madrid and Middlesbrough are worlds apart, Aitor begs to differ. “It may be different but it’s funny because all of us are very comfortable here. We have all settled in really well. My family and I are from the north of Spain and I think this part of the world has the same characteristics – the people are very similar.
“Honest people,” he adds. “I think it has made it a lot easier for us.”
Typically British, I ask about the weather, to which Aitor laughs, “That is the only thing that we miss – the sun.” But being from the Basque Provinces, in northern Spain, he explains that the weather is not too much of a problem. He visits his family and friends in Spain whenever he gets a break from the fixture list, and welcomes relatives to the North East at every opportunity.
“My parents have been here two or three times. My parents-in-law, my friends, my sister, my brother, all of the family understand that it is important for us to get to know this place.
He is passionate – it’s in that Spanish blood. He is thriving in this area and determined to bring joy to its long-standing supporters, his colleagues, and his family
“The kids are more than happy. Ibai, my eldest, he’s enjoying it a lot. He’s a different kid. His grades are better here than in Spain so he’s really pleased.
“It was difficult for my youngest at first because of her English, but now she has settled, she has her friends and her school is amazing.”
“The main thing is that all of us are very happy here,” he adds.
As well as establishing himself as a top coach in this part of the world, Aitor has established a real sense of community and culture in the area as he continues to discover this country and most importantly, our northern delights.
He enjoys dining out in Yarm and lists his family-friendly favourites, which include Cena, Muse, and a trip out to Maltby to his best-loved restaurant, Chadwicks (where he will unwind for a family meal after our chat).
“I can’t go out too often because it is a very busy place but I do go out with my family occasionally to have dinner or lunch.”
He enjoys discovering the area when he gets the chance. “I think it is important for everybody to live the same life as the people who are from here.
“As a family, we like to do touristy things. It’s a very good opportunity for us to get to know the area.
“We like to visit York and Whitby. We also like to try different restaurants in places such as Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh.
“The kids love getting to know this country and its style of living. It is important to us because sometimes you spend time in a place and you go back to your country and you don’t know any different.
“So for that reason, we are taking advantage of this area. We have trips to London, other cities, and to local places too.”
Flamingo Land? I joke, following a Twitter hype after he visited the North Yorkshire theme park with his family in May. He smiles: “Yes, the kids enjoyed it more than me but it was fun. We are really pleased here and that’s the reason I recently extended my contract to four years.”
“Football is about results,” he explains. “Sometimes you’re winning and sometimes you lose,” and to some, joining a new football club is simply part of the job. You do the job… you move on.
But for Aitor, Middlesbrough has very definitely become the ‘home team’. His family has settled down in this part of the world and the recent extension of his contract is promising for Boro fans. He is here for the ride, the ups and downs, not only for the football club, but also for the area… and the people.
He is passionate – it’s in that Spanish blood. He is thriving in this area and determined to bring joy to its long-standing supporters, his colleagues, and his family.
“For me, the main thing and the thing that makes me go forward everyday is the support. Since I came here, I feel everyday that the people support me, support my family and support the football club.
“The people are very happy. They trust me, they have confidence and it motivates me.
“I feel very proud of the work here,” he adds.
“Sometimes you can feel the pressure when you have a lot of people behind you, but for me, the support is encouraging. I think the main thing for me last season was that everybody started to hear something about Boro. Everyone knows who we are now, and we are going to make sure that continues.”
Aitor is very proud of Middlesbrough Football Club, you can tell by the way he talks about the club and its prospects. Ultimately it is the beautiful game that brought Aitor Karanka to the North East.
But football aside, as we chat about the area, sharing our favourite places to eat, shop and discover, Aitor explains how the North East has become a home from home for his family.
From the football club’s warm welcome and the support from the fans, to the friends made along the way and the local restaurants and businesses who have welcomed his family with open arms, Teesside is home.
“It’s not just the club, it’s the people… everything!”
“In the work, I say I don’t know how many times that I am in the best place I could be, with the best chairman, the best staff, and the best players. I have everything.
“But now it’s all about the club, the fans and the crowd. We are all really pleased to be in the position that we are in, and we are looking forward to the new season.
“Everybody is excited, we have the right players. Last season we missed a little bit of experience, especially in the big moments.
“But now we have players with more experience and can be important this season.
“We have a good team, we have the best crowd and we have the best stadium so now it’s my work and we will keep going.”
This season, he says he will finish the job off. He will give the fans what they deserve. He will be the hero on Teesside. The ‘home’ team.
And he will take Boro to that Promised Land – the Premier League.