When I first courted with Sunderland, the club, the people and the city, part of the deal was that I was obliged never to say a good word about either Newcastle or Middlesbrough.
I’m from Ireland though and I like it when sport and identity get mixed together. Living down the road from Middlesbrough I couldn’t help being curious about the passion that comes from the place. When I played at Sunderland, I lived far closer to Boro so I couldn’t really ignore the neighbours.
I was back there yesterday watching Chelsea take three points away from the Riverside Stadium, a result that leaves ‘Boro close enough to the relegation zone to spoil their Christmas. A win yesterday could have put them mid-table. Losing left them a point above the drop zone.
December is going to be a big month for them. They play three struggling teams before Santa comes, Leicester, Hull and Swansea. Maybe it’s a little too early to be panicking but looking out ahead, their last four games of the season will be against Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Southampton. That’s a bit scary.
Boro fans won’t need to be reminded of the finish to the 2008-2009 season. They lost their last 12 away games, and took only two points from their last six fixtures. They fell through the trap door into the Championship, Sunderland stayed up on the last day of that season and it didn’t help people on Teesside too much that Newcastle took the drop with them.
That was the last season that the North-East had its three major clubs together in the top flight. It’s been such a long time since Boro, Sunderland or Newcastle won anything major that a lot of the pleasure of North-East football comes from the misery of the neighbours. If you can’t win the Premier League seeing one of the other pair go down is the next best thing – still.
This is a region that has lost its coal industry, that no longer builds ships and no longer makes a living from steel (did you know the Sydney Harbour Bridge was made by a Middlesbrough company with Middlesbrough
steel). Outsiders don’t know how much difference it makes to the morale of the North East when the football is going well.
Back in 2009 when we at Sunderland were still celebrating having escaped the guillotine and Middlesbrough and Newcastle were in mourning, I remember commiserating with Steve Gibson. Steve is such an admirable character. I’ve heard of Boro fans who have his face tattooed onto their skin. Speaking to him back then you could understand why. The financial consequences of relegation didn’t worry him but he hated what it
would do to his city. The massive steelworks at nearby Redcar had just lost a huge contract and 2000 jobs were hanging by a thread. Football should have been an escape from the misery.
Gibson is the last and one of the best of the old style English owners/chairmen. In a time when PL clubs are the toys of oligarchs, oil barons and billionaires, this is a man who used to go to Ayresome Park on Saturday’s with his good buddy Chris Kamara. They came from the Park End estate, not a world where babies arrive with silver spoons in their mouth.
Kammy was sent south by his Dad when he was sixteen to join the Navy. He was spotted playing for the Navy football team one day by Portsmouth and they duly bought him out of the services and into a long and happy career. Steve Gibson went into local politics and later started a global tank transportation company. They are good friends to this day and when I think of Middlesbrough they come to mind as the best of the place. Gibson has taken his club from the windswept wrack and ruin of Ayresome Park to the Premier League.
Geordie and Mackem fans would call Middlesbrough followers ‘Smoggies’ because of the smoke that billowed from the great chimneys of industry which once dominated the place. Gibson’s passion though enticed great players like Ravenelli, Juninho, Boksic and many more to the city. And when Aitor Karanka walked out last year after an internal aggro during the promotion push it was his loyalty to Gibson and vice versa that kept him in Middlesbrough. There is something magnetic about Gibson’s passion; Bryan Robson will tell you all about it.
I have my own memories of Ayresome Park. I recall a night game at the old home of the Boro where I got sent off for swinging a punch at Paul Wilkinson who had neatly tripped me as I ran back up field from defending a corner kick. It was a foggy night, I was playing for Manchester City and our majestic Paul Lake had just suffered his horrific career ending injury. I was in bad form so I clipped Wilkinson, got caught through the haze by the linesman and suffered my one and only red card.
What I remember most is the aftermath. In those days when we were playing away in the East side of the country we City players used to leave our cars at Birch Service Station on the M62. We didn’t earn enough for our cars to be conspicuous.
Anyway it was about one on the morning when we got back and I was crossing the bridge over the motorway and Peter Reid the gaffer was about 30 yards behind me. He just shouted out.
“You’re fined a weeks wages”
I was fed up and not entertaining it. I just turned around and shouted back
“I’m not paying it”
I walked on. Another shout from behind.
“Right. Make that two week wages.”
Same again, “I’m not paying you, not a hope.”
Another few steps.
“Ok then, have it your way you big useless *****, you now owe a months wages.”
I kept going towards my car and noticed a stranger walking towards me. A city fan. He’d heard everything. He said to me as he passed.
“I’d quit now if I was you, mate. Reidy looks well pissed off”
Good advice. I waited for the boss to catch up and we settled on a two week fine on the bridge over the M62.
I didn’t know then that the North-East would come to mean anything more to me than it did that night.
Times have changed since then. City are owned by one of the richest men in the world and that has floated them above parking at Birch Services. Boro are still Boro though, run with a beautiful passion by a man who grew up watching them on cold smoky afternoons on the old terraces.
This year Sunderland and Middlesbrough are lingering in the bottom six while Newcastle look like certainties to come back to the Premier League next year. It’s not certain that they don’t pass their two neighbours
on the way down.
The best of times for the region are when all three teams are playing in the top league. It’s a cliche but it means so much to the people that nobody could begrudge the North East this measure of success.
Losing to Chelsea yesterday wasn’t a sign of something terminal at Boro. When Costa is bullying and working like he is at the moment Chelsea are hard to resist. Boro coped well for long periods and it is nice to see Steve Gibson’s nephew Ben developing into a fine defender. The cameras and the spotlights were on the North East yesterday but Boro’s big days will be the games against fellow bottom half strugglers in the next few months.
Karanka, a smart manager who has brought a lot of the football culture of Spain to the job, knows that Steve Gibson has his back through thick and thin while the season is still alive. It’s that sense of loyalty and
history which comes right from the top which makes Boro different and makes me wish the best for them. Come next spring I’ll be looking for the sun to shine on the Smoggies, once Sunderland are safe too of course.