Gaizka Mendieta: People couldn’t believe I was joining Middlesbrough

In Depth
Middlesbrough's Gaizka Mendieta playing against Arsenal, Highbury, London, August 2004

While most modern footballers try and finish their careers with one last big payday in America or China, Gaizka Mendieta took a more surprising route in 2003. 

A Champions League runner-up on two occasions with Valencia, Mendieta scored in both finals, becoming a two-time winner of the UEFA Best Midfielder of the Year award.

The former Spain international completed a £29million move to Lazio in 2001 but couldn’t recapture the form he had shown at the Mestalla and spent 2002-03 on loan at Barcelona.

Despite being linked with the likes of Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao, he took everybody by surprise by making a fresh start at Steve McClaren’s Middlesbrough.

“I’d been at Valencia, Barca, Lazio, always looking for the big clubs so I thought why not go to not such a big club and do something different,” Mendieta says, appearing on The Broken Metatarsal Podcast.

“Try a different approach, go to a club where it’s actually trying to make history, trying to change their history, trying to achieve big things for a club at that level and become part of that although I didn’t give it much thought at the first meeting we had, it grew on me as I waited on all the options that I had.

“In England, there was a couple of clubs but the one that really caught my eye was Boro so that’s when I decided okay let’s do this new project.”

After spending the previous season at the Nou Camp, his move to the Riverside certainly raised eyebrows as Middlesbrough had just finished 11th in the Premier League.

“I knew there was a lot of people saying, ‘Why would you go to Middlesbrough? You’ve been to Valencia, Barcelona, Rome, why go to Middlesbrough? You’ve been playing Champions League games.’

Speaking courtesy of Player 4 Player, he adds: “It was the project. I wanted to play in the Premier League. In Italy, I didn’t want to risk another year of not working as that would’ve been quite damaging for my career and the Premier League was my aim at some point of my career. I was 29 so I thought it was the time to make that step.”

Before making his final decision to join the club, Mendieta decided to do a bit of research and even contacted a Middlesbrough fan favourite.

“I knew people from England and I asked for feedback on how’s Middlebrough, what’s happening with this club, what’s the city like, what’s happening,” he says. “I spoke to Juninho and I had different backgrounds and of course, some people said ‘No why are you going to Middlesbrough?’

“We didn’t live in the city, we lived in Yarm. I loved the area, I loved living there. It was great for my daughters as well, a great experience.”

• • • •

READ: A tribute to the fantastic but flawed Middlesbrough side of 1996-97

• • • •

Not only did Mendieta silence any doubters in his debut season, but he was also part of the team that famously won the Carling Cup.

“I think that was very important to show people that the project was for real,” he adds. “That we actually won a trophy in such a competitive league and country. It made people think this guy thought this through and he wasn’t just going there because someone would pay his salary, he went there for something else.”

After the successful loan spell, he then joined the club on a permanent deal but injuries halted his progress and caused him to miss the 2006 UEFA Cup Final.

Gareth Southgate then replaced McClaren and became Middlesbrough’s new manager in 2006 and Mendieta was deemed surplus to requirements.

The midfielder decided to fight for his place at the club but in January 2007 chief executive Keith Lamb announced that he would never play in the first team again.

“He did it with me, Juninho, Massimo (Maccarone) and a few other guys,” he says. “All of these players, including myself, were there to do something for the club and if things don’t work then we sit down, have a chat and try to sort it out in the best possible way but you don’t put players in that position.

“I remember the first time I got told I had to train with the reserves so it wasn’t nice the way they did it and it wasn’t nice how they dealt with the whole situation.

“I did it several times. I wasn’t happy, I was really angry with the club, not because of who I was but you don’t treat players like that.”

• • • •

READ: Ranking Middlesbrough’s 13 weirdest Premier League signings

• • • •

Despite previously being team-mates with Southgate, their relationship began to sour and Mendietta’s time on Teeside eventually came to an end in 2008.

“It was Gareth’s first year as a manager, and he basically did what he was told. The only thing I’ve told him is that he never came to my face to say look this is what it is, this is not about I don’t think you could play there or I’d rather play someone else in your place.

“Don’t tell me things that aren’t true, just come and tell me: look this is what the club wants and this is what we’re doing. Fine. Then you can have me on board and I’ll help in every possible way.

“If I have to be here, I’d rather be on a positive note than be here and not talking to each other, being angry with the club and whatever they say.

“But he didn’t because he felt pressured by Keith Lamb or whoever it was. He didn’t manage that well and he’s admitted it. I’ve spoken to him afterwards and we’re good but if he could go back he would have done things differently.”

Listen to the full episode now to hear more from Gaizka Mendieta on playing in that incredible Valencia squad, the pain of losing two Champions League finals and his turbulent spells with Lazio and Barcelona.

More from Planet Football

Fabrizio Ravanelli at Middlesbrough: A wonderful striker, but a bit of a sh*t

A tribute to the fantastic but flawed Middlesbrough side of 1996-97

Can you name every player to score 10+ Premier League goals in 2003-04?

Ranking Middlesbrough’s 13 weirdest Premier League signings