Stewart Downing’s rift with Aitor Karanka and exclusion from Middlesbrough’s first team played a pivotal role in the Basque’s departure on Thursday but Steve Agnew has no qualms about restoring the former England winger to his starting XI.
“Stewart’s going to be a big part of the rest of the season for us,” said Karanka’s former assistant who will audition to retain the role for the remainder of the season at home to Manchester United on Sunday.
“He’s a Middlesbrough boy. Stewy loves the club, he was born and bred in Middlesbrough and it’s his town. He’s a talented footballer. He’s also somebody I’ve known a long time, so I know how he works. Stewy will be a big part of things.”
Despite playing a straight bat as he addressed the media for the first time on Friday, Agnew subtly made it clear he is a very different coach to Karanka.
Staunchly supported by Steve Gibson, Boro’s owner who, very much hoping he will prove himself a suitable choice to rescue the team from relegation, has permitted the 51-year-old to hire Joe Jordan as his assistant, Agnew made it clear his is a much more attacking manifesto than his predecessor’s.
“I see myself as a creative coach and I know I’m capable of drip-feeding my ideas into the group,” said the Yorkshireman, currently in his third stint at Boro, having also coached at Leeds, Hartlepool and Hull following a playing career encompassing Barnsley, Blackburn, Leicester and Sunderland. “I have a clear view of exactly what’s needed and that’s what I aim to deliver.”
With Boro currently 19th, without a league win since mid-December and having scored only three goals in their last 10 league games, Agnew faces quite a challenge and knows it. “Keeping us up would be the single biggest achievement of my life,” he acknowledged.
“But I keep using the word ‘confident’, and I do believe we’ll stay in the Premier League. I think I’m capable of delivering it and the players are capable. I’ve waited patiently for this opportunity and I’m very, very, confident I’ll be successful.”
Wheras Karanka had, at times, criticised the club’s supporters and the mindsets of certain players, Agnew, pointedly, praised both the fans – “they’ve been absolutely first class all season” – and the “attitudes and application” of “the best set of players I’ve worked with.”
Although he has been close to Gibson for years, their conversation following Karanka’s exit proved brief. “He was ’Get on with it, enjoy it and organise the team for the weekend’, and that’s as much as I wanted to hear,“ said Agnew. “I’m quite relaxed with that but I’m desperate to do well for Steve Gibson.”