Long read: Bryan Robson opens up on Middlesbrough regret, Steve Gibson relationship and Jonathan Woodgate appointment
On the face of it, Middlesbrough’s decision to appoint the inexperienced Jonathan Woodgate as their new head coach looked like a major gamble from the club’s hierarchy.
The Teessiders have aspirations of returning to the Premier League following their top-flight relegation in 2017, and chairman Steve Gibson has spent heavily to try and make that happen.
Yet Woodgate, who worked as the club’s first-team coach last season, isn’t the first young manager to be given a chance by Boro’s well-respected owner, whose boldness and patience have paid off in the past.
Bryan Robson, Steve McClaren, Gareth Southgate and Aitor Karanka were all given their first managerial opportunities under Gibson and are still remembered fondly on Teesside.
Out of those four bosses, it was Robson, also remembered for his success as a player with Manchester United and England, who got the ball rolling.
The former United captain was Gibson’s first managerial appointment as Boro chairman in 1994 and spent seven years at the club, initially in a play/coaching role.
Before his departure in 2001, Robson helped the Teessiders reach three domestic cup finals, win two promotions to the top-flight and oversaw the club’s move to the Riverside Stadium.
So how does the 62-year-old, now United’s global ambassador, reflect on his time in the North East?
“I was proud of what we did at Middlesbrough,” said Robson, who was recently honoured with a special legend award by the Football Writers’ Association.
“We didn't get enough credit for what we did because once we got promoted, and we had some great players, going to the three cup finals and not winning one of them was obviously a major disappointment for me. At Man United I was used to winning cup finals.
“That was disappointing but when I look back at my career at Middlesbrough, where they were when I joined, I was pleased with what I did there.”
The football Boro played under Robson is still lauded as some of the best in the club’s history, as the Teessiders lured some high-profile names, the likes of Emerson, Juninho and Ravanelli, to the North East.
That wouldn’t have been possible without Gibson’s financial backing, though, and Robson believes their relationship was a key factor in the club’s success.
“He always let me get on with it, it was a really good relationship,” added Robson. “If there were things I wanted, myself and Steve would have very informal meetings. I'd tell him what I'd like to have and it was up to him whether he would try to get that or he’d just say no.
“It was really brave of Steve when I brought Nick Barmby in for £5million, Juninho, a Brazilian, for £5million, Gazza!
“He supported me, but when we lost those sort of signings what I always talk about is we got a lot more back for them than what we bought them for.
“That’s important as a manager when you’re making decisions like that, you make a profit on them as well as them playing for the club.”
Gibson will hope to strike up a similar partnership with Woodgate, yet the former defender has endued a rocky start, winning just two of his opening 11 league games.
A lot has been made about Woodgate trying to alter Boro’s style of play, and Robson believes it’s way too early to be judging his credentials.
When asked about Boro’s start to the season under Woodgate, Robson referred to some of the club’s former managers.
“I went in for my first job there, Gareth Southgate went in from being a player, I think Gareth did a reasonable job at Boro,” said Robson. “Steve McClaren had his first job there too, but had more experience on the coaching side.
“Steve has looked at that and thought Jonathan Woodgate could do a similar job, get them back into the Premier League. Unfortunately they have had a bad start which is never easy for the rest of the season.
“Confidence is always a big part of the club. When I came to Boro we had seven games unbeaten which just led into real confidence in the squad.
“Jonathan has to work on the principles he believes in and hopefully results turn around and confidence grows in the squad.”
Despite fears on Teesside that the club could be dragged into a relegation battle, Robson also thinks Woodgate will get time at the Riverside, a message which was voiced by Gibson following the club’s appointment in June.
“He will be learning on the job,” added Robson when discussing how much time Woodgate needs. “As a manager you need more of less three years to build the squad you want.
“I say that, it is easy to say, and I am not paying the money running the football club. I do believe three years is the time when you make the decision on whether your manager is doing well, doing great, or having problems.
“Steve Gibson usually commits to his appointments and gives them time. I was there seven years, Steve McClaren was there six years, Gareth was given time. He has always given managers time to prove themselves.”
Some may argue managers no longer get that sort of time, yet Boro, and Gibson, have been rewarded in the past.