IT was a move that nobody expected Aitor Karanka to make.
It took him out of his comfort zone and into a completely new environment far away from home. It marked a radical break from the past, drawing a line under everything he had previously experienced. And it demanded a steely self-determination to disprove all those who predicted he would fail.
It had nothing, however, to do with Middlesbrough.
More than a decade before he swapped the Spanish sunshine for his first head coach role at the Riverside, Karanka made an equally dramatic move that saw him leave his first club, Athletic Bilbao, to join Real Madrid.
From the heart of the fiercely nationalist Basque country to the capital club that is synonymous with Franco’s Spain. If Karanka can survive that switch, surely he can cope with the demands of managing a well-run club in the North-East of England?
“In some ways, starting out at Middlesbrough is something of a surprise,” said esteemed Spanish football expert Graham Hunter, whose latest book “Spain: The incredible story of La Roja’s historic treble” is on sale now. “But in some ways it fits perfectly into the career of Aitor Karanka, which has been unusual from the word go.
“When he moved from Athletic Bilbao to Real there was an enormous furore. He left the Basque country to join the enemy, the club that stood for everything the Basque nation rejected. Even now, you just don’t do that.
“He was unapologetic from the word go though, maintaining he was just doing the best thing for his career. He was determined to succeed, and he did it, flying in the face of everything that was thrown at him.
“As a player, he was a functional centre-half, although he did the job that was asked of him. He was probably akin to a Marcelo or an (Alvaro) Arbeloa from the current squad.
“But as a man, he definitely carried a reputation for being mentally strong, clear-minded, reliable and honourable. Whenever I spoke to him as a player, he gave articulate, honest views on football.”
Even within his Basque homeland, he earned grudging praise for his achievements in Madrid, and any enduring bitterness disappeared entirely when he rejoined Athletic Bilbao in 2002 and spent the final four years of his La Liga playing career at San Mames.
The wider Spanish football world regarded him as a character worthy of respect, and according to Hunter, there was widespread pleasure when he was appointed as Jose Mourinho’s assistant at the Bernabeu in 2010.
“Karanka was presented to Mourinho as a fait accompli because the people at Madrid wanted someone who knew the club on the coaching staff,” he said. “Outside the club, people were pleased that Karanka had been given such an opportunity. The general feeling was that he deserved it.”
Gradually, however, that warmth disintegrated. As Mourinho waged war against the Spanish footballing authorities and media, Karanka fell into line behind him.
He was the one who stood in for the ‘Special One’ when he was suspended or refusing to attend a press conference, and he proved every bit as combative and provocative as his superior.
“That lost Karanka a fair bit of respect,” said Hunter. “He was so firmly onside with everything that Mourinho did, and certainly in the media there was a sense of Mourinho saying ‘Jump’ and Karanka asking ‘How high’.
“That was a shame. I’m not going to say that Karanka was a victim because he made his own choices and that’s the way he decided to play things. But I imagine he was in a difficult situation where it would have been all but impossible to take a different line to Mourinho.
“Karanka was a loyal lieutenant, and I think most people thought he acted like that so he would move on to wherever Mourinho went next. When that didn’t happen, people in Spain were surprised. They were almost saying, ‘Well that didn’t work then, did it?’”
Karanka is understood to have rejected the offer of a junior position on Mourinho’s coaching staff at Chelsea, and after also turning down an opportunity to coach in the Middle East, he was appointed as Middlesbrough’s first overseas head coach earlier this month.
The appointment barely caused a ripple in Spain – “the coverage of English football in the Spanish media is heavily focused on four or five of the biggest clubs” – but Hunter expects Karanka to be a success on Teesside, provided he is given time.
“They’ve got someone who can’t have done anything but learn from Mourinho, both good and bad,” he said. “It’s up to him now to decide what to copy, and what to avoid.
“He’s a strong, intelligent man, and he’s one of the few up-and-coming Spanish coaches who have what I would term a British mentality, and that should stand him in good stead.
“When it’s minus six on Teesside in the middle of winter, he’s not going to be pining for the sunshine in Andalucía. He knows what he wants from his career, and he knows he’s going to have to work extremely hard to get it.
“He’ll be able to survive the hurly-burly of life in the Championship, when some of his contemporaries probably couldn’t. I don’t pretend to know the intricacies of what’s happening at Middlesbrough, but I know Steve Gibson is famous for supporting his managers and giving them time.
“As long as that remains the case with Karanka, I see no reason why things should not go well. He’s one of the leading coaches from the most successful football nation in the world. Why shouldn’t that work?”
* Graham Hunter will present “Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble” in a special talk at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle on Monday, December 2 (6-8pm). Tickets are priced £7.50 and are available from https://grahamhuntertyneside.eventbrite.co.uk.