The following day my father phoned. 'Typical Boro, coming down with the Christmas lights,' he said.
As previously explained here, my father knows nothing whatsoever about football (and cares less) but forty years of working in the Teesside steel industry have left him fluent in the games clichés. He may not know what he's talking about, but he knows all the received wisdom and when to deliver it. He'd make an ideal pundit for Match of the Day, really.
Anyway, though there is some debate over how many games constitute a run, here's something I wrote about a previous post-Yuletide crisis at the Riverside.
There is no one smugger than a vindicated cynic, which is why a certain amount of self-satisfied smirking is going on around Teesside at the moment. Tony Mowbray's team, you see, have just lost three league games in a row.
It is one of the immutable laws of comedy that through repeated use a joke moves from being funny to being boring and then back to being funny again. To such beloved catchphrases as "This is a local shop for local people", "I'm the only gay in the village" we have long since added "Middlesbrough's traditional post-Christmas slump", variations of which appeared on just about every festive greeting I received from Boro fans last year.
In the minds of many, Boro's league campaign follows a seasonal pattern that is as unchanging as Steve Rider's hair. They push to the upper reaches of whatever division they are in before Christmas, then in the new year slide downwards faster than Tom Croft on a skeleton bob.
Injuries and a wafer-thin squad are factors to which Boro's current unhappy run has been attributed. Perhaps the explanation is simpler than that, though. Maybe after Christmas the players become tired from the effort of marching against the tide of history while carrying the burden of low expectation.
Of course, Middlesbrough fans are not alone in expecting the worst once the fairy lights have come down. West Bromwich Albion, Charlton Athletic and Leeds United are three of the other clubs who face January with the wariness of an incontinent puppy. The Baggies can point to the 1981‑82 season as an exemplar of the way that what for the general populace is a single "Blue Monday" splurges out across the whole of their January and a fair bit of February, too. Leeds, meanwhile, finished 2009 in second spot in League One with an 11‑point gap to third place, only to see the days of turkey curry and people muttering "I've hoovered this place six times and I still keep finding pine needles" usher in a spell that saw them win only three of their next 16 matches. Eventually the Elland Road club squeaked into an automatic promotion slot by a single point.
When a slump occurs everybody in football knows that it must be arrested. The only way to arrest a slump is to turn the corner. However, getting to the corner without the wheels coming off in what is a pressure‑cooker situation is by no means an easy task. Dave Bassett is one man who knew how to cope. The well-scrubbed former Wimbledon boss was for a while the Benedict Cumberbatch of slump arresting. After leaving the Dons he made a speciality of that rarest of all football phenomena, the post‑Christmas anti-slump. In 1990‑91 Bassett's Sheffield United side failed to win in their first 16 games and were bottom on Christmas Day with a meagre nine points. They went on to celebrate the new year by winning seven matches on the trot and finished the season 13th. How he did it remains a mystery. Bassett, who strode into press conferences giving off old-fashioned British manly odours of lanolin, talcum powder and social discomfort, has unfortunately remained predictably tight-lipped on the topic. And the fact he later failed to arrest a post-Christmas slump at Leicester City that lasted four winless months at the start of 2002 led many to suspect he never actually knew in the first place.
None of which helps Mowbray. The Victorians believed that sport prepared a young person for life. The only existence following Middlesbrough would ready anyone for is one of endless repetition, working on an assembly line or being Alan Hansen, perhaps. It is a steady drip of minor frustrations. Like the drops of water in the infamous Chinese torture each is nothing in itself. Added together, however, they are agony and every once in a while you just have to cry out.
During a memorable post-Christmas slump of the Bryan Robson era – a time when Boro's pursuit of a place in European football inevitably turned into a desperate struggle to avoid Saturday afternoons in Crewe – one denizen of the North Stand did just that. Over and over and over. He was a great slab of a fellow who, in his red-and-white replica shirt, looked like someone who had come to a fancy dress party as a Parcelforce van.
He was a grumbler to start with but, when the smoking ban was introduced, things really turned sour. Uncomforted by nicotine the man's spirits plummeted like a gannet after sprats. He groaned, he howled, he predicted dire consequences in all situations. The award of a throw-in to the opposition in their defensive quarter of the field saw him pull a face straight out of Edvard Munch with sound effects to match. The announcement of injury time was like the death scene in Camille. Eventually it all got too much for a bloke sitting two rows down. Midway through a 0-0 stalemate he stood up, turned round and pointed at the moaner. "How, mate, did the stewards confiscate your scythe, or what?" he roared. The moaner looked puzzled. "You sound like the grim fucking reaper," the man bellowed by way of explanation. "I bet your lass renews your season ticket just to get you out the bloody house."
I prefer to keep my pain private and as a form of self-mutilating protest I am refusing to sit up waiting for the Football League Show until Middlesbrough win again. Since this may not happen until post-Christmas becomes pre-Christmas again I will sadly be unable to report on the progress of Steve Claridge's slow metamorphosis into Blakey from On the Buses.