John Driscoll interviews Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson, the man who helped save the club from banckruptcy in 1986. Chairman since 1994, he has seen them reach three cup finals and become Premiership fixtures, in a ground fit for internationals. But what next?
How much time do you devote to the club?
What we have is a very strong executive. The chief executive [Keith Lamb], the manager and I speak to each other every day. The club is run on very sound business principles and everyone knows their role. Other than that I cherry-pick my involvement.
Did you watch the Boro when you were a kid?
I did when it didn’t clash with playing. I used to play for the school team on a Saturday and a local team on Sunday, like most people I suppose. I’ve only packed in playing competitively in the last couple of years and I still play testimonials and charity games when I can. I thought I was a fantastic player, but unfortunately other people didn’t share that view.
You have a reputation for being one of the more patient chairmen. Do you regard that as a good thing?
I’ve been fortunate that the two guys I’ve had as managers, Bryan Robson and Steve McClaren, have made it easy for me to be patient. If you look at the nine years I’ve been in charge, the graph goes up but with one or two blips in it. You get setbacks with all businesses and it’s about how you cope with those setbacks. To look for a scapegoat is not necessarily a good idea. People forget how much Bryan achieved here. When he came we had an average gate of 10,000, a battered stadium, no training ground and no players of repute. We’d never been beyond the semi-finals of the League Cup or the sixth round of the FA Cup and our post-war history was in what is now the First Division. Bryan took us to the Premiership and to three cup finals. It was a very exciting period. Bryan then moved on and Steve McClaren has taken over the challenge.
When I sat down with Steve in the early days we needed to plan a strategy. Hopefully that groundwork will begin to bear results. There is no magic wand. We finished 11th last season; that means Middlesbrough were the 11th best team in the most competitive league in the world. We’re not satisfied with that, but it ain’t a bad achievement. We’re now trying to squeeze us up a bit higher – but the higher you go the steeper the journey is. We have a lot of ambitious people here but ambition itself won’t get you anything – you have to have a logic and a strategy and sometimes things go wrong.
How do you push Boro forward from here?
When I became chairman we had no infrastructure and, because how Middlesbrough the town and area is perceived, we had to break boundaries and have some-thing different. We were the first to build a modern stadium. Part of the infrastructure was to get out of Ayresome Park – a decayed Victorian stadium. In fact it wasn’t a stadium, it was a ground. We needed to get into a new complex and did that. The second thing was to create a training ground with no equal. We think we’ve done that and can progress that even further.
The third thing is to have a good academy. No matter how good your academy is, you need to give it time. You can’t turn water into wine but when you’ve got it you need to make sure you keep it and make it better and that is our objective. You need the best physical components – football pitches, training facilities, performance laboratories. And then you need the right personnel: medical staff, coaches and of course manager. And we believe that we have created that environment.
Then you have to bring in the raw materials: the players themselves. Our strategy with Steve leading it is to bring in players of known talent but with a hunger to make their talents better. That is what we believe we have at this club – a squad of players who meet that criterion with a hard core of seasoned professionals. We’ve got Gareth Southgate, Mark Schwarzer, Ugo Ehiogu and Juninho. We needed to fit those players into a unit; we have achieved that since Steve’s arrival two years ago and we think we’ll get the benefits this season and the major benefits next season.
What do you hope those benefits will bring this year?
We have two sets of targets: those we talk about and ones we have privately. If you talk too much about targets it creates pressure. It’s almost like I’m taking the pressure off me and putting it further down the line on to the coaching staff, manager and players. There’s enough pressure in football without me adding to it. The realistic answer would be to finish higher than last season and go further in the cups.
Do you think fans should be involves in running clubs?
If you want an involvement you have to take the responsibility to go with it. There is a lot of hot air in football. There are a lot of people who’ve taken up a lot of my time. When this club went bankrupt in 1986, I met the biggest time-wasters, the biggest egos, and the biggest opinions but without any serious contribution to help. If you listen to them too long that is what uninspires you. You have to have clear leadership, sometimes you have to listen and let them influence you – but there can only be one captain of the ship and that is me. I’m not going to have a failed bus driver or bank manager telling me how to run a club of this size. I will listen and I am willing to be swayed – but the decisions I make here are the decisions that cost me. I own this club and it’s my investment that has gone in and that’s where I stand.
You have to listen to the fans because without them there is no reason to be here. You’re here because of the fans and the town – but you can’t listen to one or two opinionated individuals who think they can do your job better than you can. Someone can always do my job better than me, they can always do Steve’s job better than him, they can score a goal better than Juninho, they can defend better than Southgate and save penalties better than Mark Schwarzer – but only when they’re in the stand. Put them in the boardroom, the dug-out or on the pitch and it’s a different story
You aren’t often quoted on wider issues, the running of the game. Do you go to Premier League meetings?
I’ve been to two and I went to them specifically because they were about TV deals. Part of the reason I don’t go is because the Premier League is so well run and we have as a chief executive Richard Scudamore, who we support absolutely. He’s done a great job. The chairman is Dave Richards, who again we support fully. We have a great amount of respect for the people who run the League and – believe it or not – we also have a great amount of respect for the other chairmen as well.
If you have 20 individuals there are always one or two you disagree with or dislike, but in the main the reason I don’t go is because there is enough contribution from others. I would rather concentrate my efforts on running this club and my own business interests.
Do you think football is in a sound financial position?
There has never been more money in football; it’s how the industry uses that money. The problem is the pressure from fans and the media is immense. There has been a trend from players and agents to screw the last penny out of a club. That’s got to stop and we as a club now say “no”. Some requests we’ve had quite frankly have been disgusting. Those players are not coming and consequently we had a very quiet summer.
Can you give an example?
Sean Davis. We agreed a fee with Fulham, who acted with fantastic integrity. We were in a chase with Everton, who also acted with integrity. With a fee agreed, we were aware of the player’s package – and it was a package that we were prepared to offer – but we weren’t allowed to because the agent asked for £700,000 to facilitate the deal. We were not prepared to pay that. The agent would always ask the football club to pay even though he is working for Sean Davis. Some of the players need to be more responsible.
The fear factor comes into it. You have a manager pushing for a player and you have agents who know the manager is pushing for that player. These are not clever guys. They think they’re clever because they get financial results but they get financial results because it’s not difficult. Representing a very good footballer who is wanted by three or four clubs is not a difficult task. It doesn’t require a prime minister or a finance director, it needs a car salesman and that’s what they are. The agents are Arthur Daley – they’re not Einstein.
Is the problem that too many chairmen say “yes”? Surely you can understand agents asking for more?
I can’t understand them asking. In life you look to be reasonable and fair and some of the agents are not being reasonable and fair. The ultimate responsibility lies with the chairman – but it’s very difficult when he’s got 35,000 supporters, the media and the manager all telling him that without this player the club’s going to get relegated or not win the championship. There is always the final piece in the jigsaw and you cannot single out the chairman. The managers are paid tremendously well, the players are paid tremendously well and I think there is an awareness that people in the game have got to take more responsibility.
You don’t seem to do many interviews. Is that because you are busy or are you reluctant to raise your profile?
A bit of both really. I am busy but I don’t particularly like seeing myself on TV or in the papers. Dave Allan [the club’s head of media] pulls me into it from time to time because he thinks the club needs to have the profile, but I don’t want publicity for the sake it.
You are very popular as football club chairmen go. Is that important to you?
I’d rather be popular than unpopular if that’s what you’re asking. I think the reason for it is the history. The club went bust in 1986 and I played a role in saving it. I helped build a new stadium and we have now built a Premiership team. The Middlesbrough public are quite knowledgeable on football matters and they understand we’re a small town with a population of 120,000 with really no right to be in the Premier League – can you imagine any other town with a population of 120,000 and 23,000 season-ticket holders?
You have obviously invested a lot, but how important is it to get the club making its own money?
You’ve got to make your club as self-sufficient as possible – none of us lives for ever or knows what is round the corner. I know it’s an old saying, but it’s true – you are a custodian. You don’t really own the club; you may own the share certificate, but it’ll be here long after me.
What have been your best and worst moments since you’ve been in charge of the Boro?
There have been many outstanding moments. Getting promoted as champions in Bryan Robson’s first season and getting back by beating Oxford 4-1 here. But maybe the very best was beating Liverpool 2-0 in the semi-final second leg of the League Cup [in 1998]. We were in the First Division and were 2-1 down so no one expected us to beat them. The worst was Heskey’s goal in the last minute [of the 1997 Coca-Cola Cup final] and relegation. And perhaps Bryan Robson leaving.
Have you had close relationships with the managers?
If you work with anyone that close you’re bound to. They are two very different people, Steve and Bryan. Not different bad – different good.
The good thing is that Bryan left two or three years ago and I can still ring him up and go and have a beer. It’s the same with Viv Anderson and Gordon McQueen. Although people think there is a lot of friction when things break down, you can still maintain a friendship and I hope the same applies whenever Steve leaves, for whatever job, wherever.
From WSC 201 November 2003. What was happening this month