Steve Agnew seemed slightly uncertain. “Suit or tracksuit?” mused Middlesbrough’s interim manager. “I don’t know. I haven’t had time to think about that, so it’ll probably be whatever takes my fancy when I wake up on Sunday morning … but I’d prefer the cameras to be focusing on the players rather than me.”
A carefully polished public image is something Aitor Karanka’s former assistant has rarely had to worry about in recent years but the 51-year-old finds himself suddenly propelled into the televised spotlight as Manchester United, José Mourinho et al visit the Riverside on Sunday lunchtime.
This time last year Agnew replaced the then temporarily suspended Karanka as Boro lost a Sunday Championship game at Charlton Athletic, swiftly reverting back into the shadows once the Basque was reinstated and the bitter dressing-room row that had prompted a spell of gardening leave was consigned to history.
Yet even as Karanka led Boro to promotion and began this season in reasonably promising fashion, the repercussions of that altercation festered. More specifically any trust between the manager and Stewart Downing appeared eroded, so it was no real surprise when another argument at Rockliffe Park, the club’s outwardly serene training ground set amid rolling parkland and mature woodland on the County Durham/North Yorkshire border, prompted regime change on Thursday.
In that latest rift the Teesside-born former England winger was excluded from the squad for last Saturday’s 2-0 home FA Cup defeat by Manchester City, something Karanka explained on the grounds that he wanted only “fighters” playing for him.
Given Downing’s status as a popular and influential dressing-room figure, those words dictated that the harmony at least partially restored during a bonding lunch the previous week was shattered. With behind-the-scenes tensions heightening, messages were relayed to Cheltenham, where Steve Gibson, Boro’s owner, had intended to spend the week at the races. Instead he headed back to Teesside on Wednesday evening in an attempt to prevent things unravelling as disastrously as Boro’s Premier League form, in which the team have gone 10 games without a win, scoring only three goals and dropping to second bottom.
On Thursday morning a divorce was announced, with Gibson claiming Karanka had “sacrificed himself for the club” and departed by “mutual consent”. If that version of events proved subsequently rather undermined by Mourinho – still a close friend of the man he employed as his assistant at Real Madrid – who spoke of Karanka’s “sacking” and claimed he knew “the names of the players responsible”, the wider consensus was that excessive tactical conservatism and control-freak tendencies had made managerial change inevitable.
To some Boro watchers Manchester United’s manager can be construed as partly culpable. Indeed Karanka’s evidently meticulous study of the José Mourinho songbook seemed reflected by a series of cameos often featuring the collection of needless enemies and unnecessary confrontation rather than sensible compromise. The moment, late last month, when he publicly criticised a member of Boro’s medical staff appeared a case in point. If this aspect of Karanka’s character sometimes obscured the extremely good side – the high-calibre coaching, the raising of professionalism throughout the club, the dedication to detail – Boro’s internal politics were arguably in peril of turning as toxic as Chelsea’s towards the end of Mourinho’s last Stamford Bridge tenure.
Now Gibson has tasked Agnew with averting relegation, with the owner hoping he will see sufficient signs for encouragement against United to keep the man Boro trust will be their Shakespeare – as in Leicester’s Craig – in the post until at least the end of the season.
Although Peter Kenyon, a club consultant, has tentatively sounded out Guus Hiddink about a potential fire-fighting role and Nigel Pearson and Alan Pardew hover in the background, Gibson’s belief in Agnew was highlighted when he permitted him to hire Joe Jordan as his assistant and allowed three key members of Karanka’s largely Spanish backroom staff, including the principal analyst, Juando Vila, to depart.
Agnew, a West Yorkshire-born former Blackburn, Leicester and Sunderland midfielder turned respected Leeds, Hartlepool, Hull and Boro coach, is in his third stint on Teesside where he has always been close to the owner.
Impressively articulate and measured, he came across well during an inaugural media address on Friday when he discreetly made it clear that, much as he admired Karanka, he was a different coach and man manager who had long craved a chance as a No1.
There was praise for Downing – now apparently earmarked for “a massive role” – an emphasis that Agnew regards himself as a creative coach and immense confidence he can succeed in keeping Boro in the Premier League.
“Let’s see where Sunday takes us,” Agnew said. “But for me this is the right feeling, the right moment.”