When Aitor Karanka came to England in 2013 to take the helm at Middlesbrough, it was his first job outside of his native Spain. Now manager of Nottingham Forest, he thinks the move to the English game was well worthwhile.
Only a handful of managers in England’s top four divisions have begun their management careers in a completely unfamiliar country. In 2013, one of the intrepid few, Aitor Karanka, stepped out of his comfort zone, both professionally and culturally, but was it a risk?
“No.” Karanka shakes his head. “Sometimes when you are inexperienced you make mistakes because you are brave, but once I met the people at Middlesbrough, especially Peter Kenyon and Steve Gibson, I had no doubt that it was the best thing for me and the first step in my career. They trusted me straight away and when you have that confidence it makes everything easier. I knew from that first meeting it was the right move for me.”
That combination of trust and self-assurance provided Karanka with the perfect platform to demonstrate what he had learned from his playing and coaching careers. While they were spent mostly amongst the Galacticos of Real Madrid, winning three Champions League medals, he is conscious that he still needs to earn the respect of his players on the training pitch.
“You might get the feeling from the players initially that they respect you because of your past successes, but this is just the first phase,” he says. “If in the second or third week, they don’t feel that you’re good enough as a coach then all the trophies and experience you have mean nothing.”
Instead, he prefers to use his experiences to help his players. “It’s true that if you have been a player, you will often have been through similar situations to your team at some point in your career, which means you can relate and can help them better.”
HEAD TO HEAD
During his four seasons at Middlesbrough, Karanka oversaw steady, but consistent, improvements in the club’s league position. He narrowly missed out on promotion in his first full season in charge, before leading the club to the Premier League through automatic promotion the following year. Now back in the Championship with Nottingham Forest, he faces quite different challenges.
“In the Championship the standard is more even, so even when you’re losing a game there’s always a chance to equalise,” he says. “In the Premier League, though, the difference in quality between teams is often huge, so if you don’t have the right quality in your side you’ll find it difficult to stay.
“A good example of this came last season. We fought hard against every team and drew away from home against Manchester City and Arsenal, and only lost against Manchester United in the last minute. We were competing well each time, but in the end the difference in quality showed in the results.”
That game at Old Trafford offered him the chance to go head to head with an important figure in his coaching career, his former Real Madrid head coach, José Mourinho. This was an important period for Karanka, as he had the opportunity to hone his managerial skills while working under a highly decorated manager.
“At first I didn’t want to be a coach, because I didn’t want to treat the players the way that some coaches treated me,” he says, “but working with José, I learned how to do it. If you are honest and you always go to the players with the truth, if you trust the players and the players trust you, then nobody can say that you fooled them.
“I always prefer to be honest. Sometimes it’s difficult because the players may not want to hear the truth if it’s too tough, but I think it is better to have everything transparent.”
Aside from a brief period in the US, Karanka spent the majority of his playing career in Spain. However, a move to England was always an ambition. “Coming to England was something that I wasn’t able to do as a player, but that I always wanted to do, because the football is different here. The respect given to players and managers is different, the atmosphere at games is different – I think some people don’t realise how big this league really is.”
When he eventually arrived, he was keen to show respect for the culture of his players and the processes already in place, rather than taking a steamroller approach. “I think the main thing is to look at it as a person, not as a coach. So just as if I was coming to England to visit, I had to take on board the customs here,” he says. “I didn’t want to arrive and immediately change everything. I had to understand the culture as quickly as possible and then see where I could combine that with my ideas and philosophies from Spain.
“It was the same when I arrived at Nottingham Forest,” he adds. “I respected the job that the previous manager had done and the players that were here, and then we started to make changes. All the while though, I had to keep in mind that I was in another country, so I couldn’t necessarily do the same things as I would in Spain.”
An important factor in enabling Karanka to remain in England and successfully further his career was his family’s adjustment to English life. When asked how they are getting on, he responds with a smile. “Really well. The first year was very difficult for me, because I was alone and it was my first experience of coaching in a different country, but they’re now here with me and that’s very helpful.
“I think it’s important that whether you have won or lost, whether things have gone well or badly, that you can return to your house and have your family there.”
Karanka’s focus is now on reinvigorating a Nottingham Forest side in its 10th consecutive season in the Sky Bet Championship and he’s clear in his assessment of what is required of everyone at the club. His eyes are set firmly on progress and promotion.
“For me, that message is not a difficult one, because I’ve always been an ambitious person, but for other people it may create pressure, so it’s important that we remain calm,” he says. “We know that this is a big project, but that if we work together it will be easier to achieve.”
As a three-time European champion himself, Karanka understands and recognises the importance of the club’s history as two-time European Cup winners. It’s also clear, though, as he sits in the club’s training kit, adorned with the Nottingham Forest crest, that he’s looking forward to the club’s future. “To wear two stars on your chest is nice, but to help get this team into the Premier League again would be amazing.”