• Tom Muldowney

Boro Stories | A Year Without the Boro

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

There was nothing remarkable about Middlesbrough’s 1-0 defeat to Barnsley at Oakwell on February 22nd 2020. There were talking points, of course. What was Jonathan Woodgate to do to turn around the fortunes of a club who had picked up one point from a triple-header against the Championship’s bottom three? Why had Jonathan Woodgate started Ravel Morrison in such an important game? Why was Jonathan Woodgate the Middlesbrough manager? There were certainly questions to ponder for the 4,000 Teessiders who shuffled out of the Oakwell away end at 4:50 that day, but the match itself was unremarkable for them.

For me though, and probably many others, it would be the last time we’d be able to see Boro play for over a year. I’ve gone longer without going to a match in the past. I lived in Asia for a while in my younger days, but this coincided with the terrible Strachan Boro era, and in all honesty, his turgid tenure meant I’d fallen slightly out of love with football regardless of where in the world I was. So I didn’t feel the loss quite as keenly.

But to be geographically so close to the Riverside yet so far removed from the action has been an interesting yet frustrating experience. As we approach the one-year mark since that disappointing day at Oakwell, I have been reflecting on a year without Boro from my own perspective, but the wider effect of the spectatorless sport we have had to get used to. Of course, many of us have, by and large, been able to follow the matches. Whether it’s on iFollow, the MFC subscription, or BBC Tees, we’ve had the chance to follow the action from the comfort of our homes. But, as someone who was at home for the biggest match of recent times (The Brighton promotion 6-pointer in 2016 falling on my wife’s birthday), let me tell you, the moments that really matter, matter that little bit less when you aren’t there for them.

Imagine the roar from the away end at Hillsborough on the final day of last season, when Championship survival was solidified by Britt Assombalonga’s late goal. Or when Patrick Roberts tucked away an all-important away winner at Reading?

Imagine the visceral booing when Woodgate’s rudderless side were dismantled at home to Swansea? Imagine the collective fury of 25,000+ fans when Blackburn got away with a certain red card at the Riverside last month.

That last one is a fine example of where the fans could have made a genuine difference. In a previous game at home to Blackburn, in December 2018, I maintain that, after Muhammad Besic’s red card and Blackburn’s opener, it was the collective will of the fans that roared the lads on the pitch to snatch a draw. Whether the fans would have made a difference in that terrible game last month, we will never know. But I do know that nothing gets a crowd riled up like a sense of injustice.

Of course, it’s impossible to really tell whether results would be affected by the presence of a crowd, but for those of us that make it up, the difference has been stark. We all have our own pre and post-match routines, and we all have our own matchday rituals. But whatever they are, the disruption that has prevented us all from taking part in them is surely now starting to make us yearn for that regime back?

For me, for a classic 3pm Kick off, it’s a late morning drive up the A1 from my home in West Yorkshire. Music on in the car, and my eyes peeled for any other Boro fans making the pilgrimage, and of course, away fans that I hope will be coming back disappointed a few hours later. A lunchtime arrival at the Southfield, where I meet my dad, and we briefly catch up on family matters, while waiting for the all-important burger and pint. Then it’s time to check the team sheet and pore over the line-up, the strengths, weaknesses and the “Well, what I’d have done…”s. From there, a slow stroll to the ground. Without even taking into account the football itself, I long for that routine immensely. And for the Riverside itself, I personally miss it more than I thought I could of a cold structure of concrete and steel. It might be different for the die-hards who’ve gone to every home match since the stadium opened, but for me, when I emerge from the underpass and see the stadium emerge, I still get a flashback to the sense I felt when I first saw the same view in 1995.

I love it all. The handful of people you walk along with through town, which gradually becomes a growing throng, the excitement outside as people gather with matchday mates, the smell of pies and booze in the concourse, the walk up the concrete stairs to the pitch, and, most importantly, the people in the stands. Your football family. For some, we’re talking about people they’ve known for decades, but have never seen outside of the ground. Kids they’ve seen grow into adults, people they could draw from memory, perhaps having never spoken to them beyond a handful of “bloody hell, what a hit”s or “what was he doing there?”s every season.

There can be no argument that watching on the TV or a laptop cannot compete with the feeling of being part of a collective, sharing disappointment, anger and joy in unison. Feeling like part of the crowd, part of the team, part of the Boro.

I want that back.

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