Following the recent departure of Gordon Strachan, a thread started on a Blades internet forum which debated the merits of Steve Gibson. "The type of chairman you want at your club". Now Gibson is clearly well thought of within football as well as by the town of Middlesbrough. From forming a consortium to save the club from liquidation in 1986, to his subsequent appointment as chairman in 1994, to overseeing the move to the Riverside, he is cited as a man who pulled Boro back from the brink and propelled them to significant success. But what makes him perceived to be better? What makes him different?
Like many "fan" chairmen he has put considerable sums into the club he loves. Via the Gibson O'Neill company (of which he owns 75%) he has taken on over £50m of football club debt (per 2009 accounts). Then again, many chairman put in considerable sums of their business wealth to support what are fundamentally loss making football clubs. In the 12 months to 31st December 2009, Boro made an operating loss of £12.6m.
Whereas, macro-economic pressures and the recession have hit some hard, Gibson has been fortunate to continue to generate significant profits from his business ventures. Fortunate is probably too harsh, he should be given credit for it. This has enabled him to maintain the support required to stay in the Premiership and also provide significant sums (by Championship standards) to try and return. Something not all chairman have been able to maintain, as I know from following my club. This seemingly unconditional support is certainly one factor in his popularity.
So what has the investment achieved? A Carling Cup victory whilst twice finishing runners up, an FA Cup final appearance and a run to the final of the UEFA Cup Final in 2006. The cynical would say that for the amounts incurred one trophy is not a great return. The realistic would acknowledge it is a good return for a club the size of and with the infrastructure of Boro. Fans of many similar sized, "unfashionable" teams would kill for any element of that success, whatever they may claim.
The focus he has given to developing a quality academy has paid dividends. The Boro academy has developed and delivered a huge number of quality players to the first team and beyond, often compensating for the failure of many players acquired for significant fees who have flopped at the Riverside, Digard, Alves, Emnes.... The fees generated from selling on these players has helped subsidise the £60m Boro have spent since the Summer transfer window of 2006 and the many millions more expended before that.
He has also been given credit for the manner in which he deals with his managers. The manner in which the Strachan departure was handled being a case in point, where Strachan took no compensation from the club. Yet his unwavering support for his managers can be questioned. He probably let Bryan Robson out-stay his reign, leading to the need to bring in Terry Venables, albeit successfully, to support Robson. The same could be said of Southgate, whilst the eventual timing of both Strachan and Gareth Southgate's departures could be questioned.
In what is an extremely tight Championship table and with a team under performing, Strachan left after spending over £6m (£4m net of transfer income) during the Summer and with Boro 9 points off the play offs. Is this too soon to assess a team showing 8 players in and 8 out from the end of the last season? One of the contributory factors was the strength of feeling from what was left of the Riverside faithful. A vociferous 17,000 rattling around a half empty Riverside. Yet the numbers rather than the noise probably rang alarm bells for Gibson.
He is clearly a talented businessman and charismatic leader. He is by no means the perfect chairman, he has made mistakes, but don't they all. Boro fans couldn't imagine Boro without him and many fans of other clubs would want a chairman of his ilk.
His latest managerial appointment is an interesting one and probably the right one. The next couple of years are vital for the club. The last time the club fell into the Championship, at the end of the 1996-97 season, the club bounced back first time. This time around they are now in their second term in the second tier and with a £12m drop in parachute payments next season, the Director's Report for the 2009 accounts emphasises the precarious nature of the club's finances and raises questions regarding the extent to which Gibson can continue to plug the financial shortfalls.
"The company is determined that the team can achieve promotion no later than at the end of the second season in the Football League as a result of the restructuring carried out and with the help of the reduced financial benefit still being received from the Premier League."
In employing Tony Mowbray, a promotion winning manager with WBA, Gibson not only believes he has the right man for the job, but also he has an important ally if the performances don't turnaround sufficiently this season. A fan, a former captain, a hero to the Riverside faithful. When things are tough, you need to dig in and pull together. Mowbray might well be the glue required and add some impetus at a time when supporter apathy has clearly set in.
It wont be easy. He will have to deal with players he was only too happy to get rid of during his disappointing reign at Celtic. The margins between success and failure in the Championship are tiny. A point or one goal can be the difference between automatic promotion and a play off lottery ticket. With QPR and Cardiff already establishing a gap between themselves and the rest at the top of the table, a play off place will be a good achievement.
The next 18 months will be a defining era for Middlesbrough Football Club and also for their chairman and manager. A prologed stay outside the Premiership has affected many clubs and the financial re-adjustment is tough. Some are unable to sustain a place in the Championship and a return from League One is not straightforward, as Southampton, Leeds and others will testify. The fans will always have fond memories of a cup final glory and European nights, but fans memories are notoriously short term. Those memories could well be tarnished if Boro find themselves 25 years on with further financial strife, dwindling crowds and playing football in the Championship or even League One. Time will tell.