Saturday, 28 June 2014


From The Guardian, March 2010

I've been going through a bit of a period of emotional upheaval. I won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say here that the week it all blew up like a rogue septic tank Middlesbrough lost twice. "You would have thought," a friend of mine said in the consoling way men have in times of crisis, "you would have thought that after all you've been through recently your team could have at least produced a decent result for you. Bloody hell, they even missed a penalty at Blackpool."

My friend knows me very well, but he clearly doesn't know the Boro at all. While there may be other clubs who, subliminally sensing the distress of one of their supporters will go out and give a glowing display of uplifting football in an attempt to console and reassure them, that is not the Middlesbrough way.

If Boro find a fan lying face down in the proverbial cowpat, they do not haul him to his feet and gently wipe his cheeks with a hankie while muttering soft words of reassurance. No, they thump the toe of their boot on the back of his noggin and twist it from side to side until their ankle gets tired. And after over four decades following the rotten bastards it is exactly what I need and expect. In times of turmoil you have to hold on to the constants. Frankly, if this had all gone off when we'd just signed Juninho, or Ravanelli, or were making heroic comebacks on our way to the Uefa Cup final, I'd have become so disoriented insanity would surely have followed.

I was supposed to go to the game against QPR on Saturday, but I phoned the friend I was going with and told him I couldn't make it. When I explained why he said, "Oh, yes, I can see that. I mean, the Riverside isn't a place to be visiting if you're feeling a bit depressed. In fact, even if you're elated it's a bit of a suicide risk these days. Forty-five minutes of the sort of football we've been playing this season and we'd be pulling you down off the Transporter bridge."

It reminded me of one of the dark, final days of Bryan Robson's regime. Literally a dark day, as it happens – the sky was the colour of a deep bruise, the rain was hanging in the air like an unfinished argument and Teesside generally appeared so grim and forbidding it made the city in the movie Se7en look like Trumpton. Boro were playing Bradford City, a side so inept it was always a surprise they didn't get lost in the tunnel. Yet a feeling of discomfort and unease filled the chests of the home fans walking to the ground – even those who hadn't eaten a parmo.

Ahead of me were three big-faced men with those deep, rumbling Teesside voices that sound like a half-laden coal truck driving slowly over a cattle-grid. One said: "If Boro lose today I'm going to climb up on the Transporter bridge and chuck myself in the river."

"If Boro lose today, there'll be a queue," one of the others said. "Aye," the third man said: "You'll have to take a number like down the DSS. You'll have to wait for them to call you."

Gallows humour is what I want from football, the certainty of bubbling grievance and simmering resentment. My Grandad took me to Ayresome Park for the first time when I was six, slipped the gateman a shilling for a "squeeze" and lifted me over the turnstile at the Bob end.

I had spent most of my life in the company of women, in houses that were calm and cosy, full of cushions and the smell of baking scones and lily of the valley soap. Ayresome Park, by contrast, was cavernous and cold. The seats were hard, the air filled with the scent of fried onions and stale ale and the harsh growl of the crowd, always teetering between rage and joyful laughter. Though I did not recognise it at the time, I had entered the world of men.

My grandad pointed at the famous pitch that day, green and shimmering with autumn dew, and said: "Look there, that's the finest turf in the country." And the bloke behind said: "Hardly surprising, all the shite it's had on it".

In the year that my grandfather died from a stroke Middlesbrough went into receivership, the gates at Ayresome Park were padlocked, the club passed away. I saw my grandmother alive for the last time on the same afternoon I watched a Nicky Mohan own goal gift victory to visiting Swindon. My daughter was born the summer Boro moved to the Riverside.

It would be easy to interpret this as somehow symbolic, a link in the chain. It isn't, though, it's simply coincidence, and we stand in the middle of it all looking for signs and portents and trying to piece together some plausible narrative from the chaos. Which, as my friend said last Friday when I mentioned it to him, is pretty much the way most of us felt when we were watching Mikkel Beck and Hamilton Ricard.


  1. laughed out loud a couple of times , I have to admire your resilience, any side that loses two cup finals and gets relegated in one you they have the perfect biographer. (no offence intended )
    My first game at Ayresome park, I was about seven, can't remember the opposition, but my god it was deadly dull, dreary and yes, dismal.
    For the first time in my innocent young life I felt a rising lump of resentment and bitterness tinged with a faint , nameless anger.
    Goalless at half time, as they trooped off I asked my dad 'is that it then ?'
    'No son, they'll be back in a while for the second half.'
    I felt doomed, my heart sank, 'They needn't bother' I said, and I knew I did not have the intestinal fortitude to come back for a long, long time.

  2. Great article, I've put a link on my blog, not that you need it!

    Right anecdote time. My father worked at Ayresome Park and I even worked in the old half-time scoreboard. Anyway dad was working in the centre of the south stand and parked me and my mate at the front. gradually the terrace filled with with what I now know to be beer-charged supporters. The game Boro v Charlton progressed, can't remember the score but Eddie Bailey broke his his leg and Brian Clough was, well Brian Clough.

    The language from the beer fuelled south terrace grew more and more stevedore-like as my gran would have put it. Posh gent in sheepskin coat asks, very politely, for the arch protagonist to moderate the cursing because he has a lady with him. Man in donkey jacket doesn't even turn round and utters the immortal words 'you shouldn't bring fucking tarts to a football match'

    Later I ask dad what 'a fucking tart' is. Cue a sharp crack around the ear from him and mum. What a pincer movement.

    Great blog by the way.



  3. Thanks, John. A clip round the ear sounds about right. A mate of mine got similar treatment for asking his Dad for an explanation of something Fred Trueman said at Acklam Park. All the best Harry