Has the Halo Slipped?

Len Shackleton, a post war winger for Sunderland, a footballer who was clever with his feet and his mouth, wrote in his autobiography a chapter on Directors/Owners: A blank page.

Has the Halo Slipped?

At the time it caused a stir, similarly, Brian Clough was notoriously rude and dismissive towards the Derby chairman Sam Longson and went on to disregard the committee that appointed him at Nottingham Forest.

No such accusation of ignorance and incompetence could be directed towards Steve Gibson, the Boro owner and chairman.

Gibson has had thirty years of footballing experience where he has shown ambition, good sense and an unwavering tolerance despite the turmoil that infects modern football. He is hugely respected in and outside the game and is even well liked, a rarity for a person in such an exalted position. His name is sung at every home match and his status as a inspirational owner /chairman appears untouchable.

The recent appointment of Garry Monk as manager of the club happened because of Monk’s view that Boro, personified by Gibson, offered ‘stability and continuity’. One could also add patience and support to a manager.

From what we know, Monk decided against Leeds because he believed that Leeds could not offer him what Boro could. Within this expectation between manager and club, is the notion of trust.

Gibson, through his reputation as Chairman could offer that in abundance whereas Leeds, after their recent disruptions and uncertainties through the maverick owner Cellini, could not give the same assurances.

Stability and continuity are rare qualities in modern football; where short-termism, results oriented and a prevailing hire and fire culture persists.

Not so at Boro, where Steve Gibson has been Chairman and owner of the club for over twenty years. I am intrigued by the Governance structure of the Club because of its reliance or over-reliance on one man.

Boro, as we know are part of Gibson’s business portfolio. The club is a ‘works team’ as are Juventus owned by Agnelli family i.e. Fiat car company, so we are in good company.

Historically, football clubs were owned by self-made men who had made money and wanted to direct their profits into pursuits that appealed to them. In the 1960s and 70s football was littered with such characters; Bob Lord, Burnley; Peter Swales, Manchester City; Doug Ellis, Aston Villa. During this time it seemed that each club had such a benefactor, often with a towering ego and a determination to dictate how the club should be run.

Gibson only partially fits into this category of successful businessmen. The Governance structure at Middlesbrough is distinctive because only two people are identified, Gibson as chairman, Neil Bausor as CEO, successor to Keith Lamb.

Most boards in the public and private sector consists of at least six or seven directors.

We can only assume that there are other significant people involved in the management of the Club but the strategic direction and development of the Club rests solely on Gibson’s shoulders. Or does it?

A few years ago Gibson publicly stated that he needed stimulus and challenge to his thoughts on how the club should be developed hence the arrival of Peter Kenyon, who appears to act as a touchstone, adviser, and consultant to Gibson. How this works and whether it is effective we do not know. Whether a singular Governance structure of Owner/Chairman and Chief Executive is an effective model is questionable.

If we scrutinise this structure more deeply in the context of last year’s relegation, it may shed some light on its viability. Steve Gibson has a well-deserved reputation for appointing young aspiring managers and taking a risk with them. He rarely appoints people who are older than he is and have had more footballing experience than he has. Terry Venables was an exception and brought in under special circumstances.

Gibson also has a good reputation, again, rare in football, of giving managers a free hand to manage without interference and intervention. This too is commendable, especially the patience and support given when results are a cause for concern.

When we come to examine the relationship between Gibson and Karanka and its particular dynamics. We may be able to detect some clues as to why the club was relegated. The easy and superficial explanation is, we did not score enough goals, we were too defensive and we could only play one style of football. All of this may be true, but does not reach the underlying factors that may have contributed to the club’s relegation.

Karanka was appointed without previous managerial experience, but for Boro fans they did not miss a heartbeat because neither had McClaren nor Southgate. We had been here before. However, Karanka faced particular challenges, that to his credit he overcame, learning English and the cultural differences between football life in Spain and England.

As the dust settles on Karanka‘s departure and we consider his legacy. One feature stands out, his closeness to Gibson and his friendship with the owner that seemed an overwhelming characteristic of his time on Teesside.

In the final stages of his time as manager, Karanka criticised virtually every aspect of the club, the medical staff, the recruitment policy and players. He never criticised Gibson; in fact, he became more fulsome in his praise of the owner towards the end of tenure.

This raises two questions about Gibson’s judgment.

First, with regard to Karanka did he become too close to him, which affected and compromised his judgment and appraisal of how Karanka was performing?

Second, one of Gibson’s key qualities is that he is patient and supportive to his manager.

In the case of Karanka did this become a weakness to the ultimate detriment of the club? The obvious example to reference is the infamous walk out by Karanka last year which left Gibson with a diplomatic wire act of putting everything back together and so ensure some semblance of unity as the Club strove for promotion.

That example and the gradual decline since Christmas takes us into the area of making assumptions and what the balance of probabilities are. Did Gibson indulge Karanka and allow him too much leeway to manage the club as he saw fit?

The role of a chairman in a football context is to express the vision and parameters for the manager to work within and be given the resources for the relevant objectives to be achieved. The so-called ‘project’ in modern parlance. It seems that Karanka did organise the club as if it were his own personal fiefdom. Players stopped attending monthly Supporter Club meetings and Karanka’s writ ran large in the operational running of the club.

Steve Gibson gives the impression of being an honest, self-critical man who would have been mortified by the reality of relegation.

From a distance as a humble supporter and observer of what goes on at the club, it appears that he is too trusting of his managers, Karanka, in particular. When making a decision or reaching judgement timing is of the essence, Karanka’s style of play was too defensive, rigid and lacking in tactical flexibility. If I can see that, so could Steve Gibson. However, he had the responsibility and opportunity to do something about it. For too long he did nothing, was that inertia related to the special relationship he had with Karanka?

Steve Gibson is a successful business man and what he has achieved for himself and the attention it has brought to Teesside is laudable and does him considerable credit.

This makes it all the more baffling as we look at the way the Club performed throughout last season. It was as if we had never been in the Premier League before. We appeared unprofessional, unprepared, and content to drift along and make do. All the effort in reaching the Premier League seemed to have exhausted our desire to stay there.

As a consequence and for the first time, Boro fans began to seriously question Gibson’s role in Boro’s plight, on social media, print and occasionally on Radio Tees before a curt interruption would ensue.

Here is the problem, the high esteem in which Gibson is held, almost forbids any discussion or rational analysis of the impact of what he does. Could it be that supporters are seduced by the money he has invested over the years and already committed to this season; thus inhibiting any scrutiny of his actions?

The limp way, in which we left the Premier League, the subsequent disastrous appointment of Steve Agnew would suggest a lack of attention, a lack of scrutiny and playing catch up with what is happening in the club. More puzzling as we bring matters up to date is the mystery surrounding Steve Agnew, and the less important mystery of why two Gazette journalists are banned from the training ground and of speaking to Garry Monk.

Supporters want to know what is going on in their club’s. They are not entitled to know the confidences and personal aspects of club life. Communication between club and supporters is an on going process, it fluctuates, and there are ups and downs. There is a strong bond at Boro between the club and supporters for which Gibson should take credit, but it should not be taken for granted by both sides.

Like everybody else I am annoyed we were relegated and feel it was avoidable. I am still mystified as to why it happened and I know from his public pronouncements Gibson is keen to ‘move on’ from last year’s debacle. We cannot guarantee success this year despite the financial outlay and if the worst happens and we stay in this league, there is bound to be further scrutiny of the Governance of the Club again. Should that occasion occur and I hope it does not, let us, as supporters be less blinded by the adulation of the chairman and be more vigilant of his actions as we are of the manager and players.

Denis Barry

Do you agree with Denis? What role did Steve Gibson play in Boro's relegation last season? Have your say on the Boro forum.