Boro Stories: Halcyon Days - It Isn’t Always Like This: My relationship with Boro
Updated: Mar 12
I'm not old enough to have grown up and lived through and supported Boro during the 'rebirth' years of '86. Ricoh and Mowbray and all that. Despite my appreciation of that period, I can only 'romanticise' these stories in my head. Unfortunately, I was never brought up with that 'underdog' Middlesbrough mentality. Nor did I develop the proper Teesside 'chip on the shoulder (my Darlington roots hindered that). Instead, through no fault of my own, I came to follow Middlesbrough during the 1994/95 season. My family admittedly did not really follow any particular team and it was actually my older sister who started going to the odd game in the early 90s. And that was it. The Tooth family were Boro fans.
Whether or not I watched any games before this, the first memory I have of Middlesbrough is watching the game against Luton Town in 1995, the match which secured promotion to the Premier League. We all gathered around the really old TV at my Nana's old house (one of those really old TVs. No remote control and those massive push-in buttons to change the channel). I do not think I fully understood what was going on, with the move to the new stadium. I certainly had no clue as to what had happened the previous decade.
All I knew is we won the game and we were getting promoted. My first memory was a success. Doesn't really fit the narrative, does it?! I guess that makes me a 'glory supporter' to some degree?
A couple of weeks later, I got to go to my first ever game. The Stephen Pears testimonial. That is the one regret I have, that I was unable to go to Ayresome Park more. I get jealous when people reminisce and recall anecdotes of times spent and memories made in that old ground. But I got to go once, and that was enough. I was hooked and the addiction began.
My memories of that evening at the old ground are somewhat sparse. I can’t remember the game, nor who scored that evening. Instead, the one thing that does always come back to me is standing on the Holgate, face tight up to the fencing at the front, frantically trying to get my hands on the Ayresome Park turf that was being poked through the gaps by the stewards (not knowing that just a few months later we would actually be awarded a patch of the pitch through a raffle – which still remains in our garden, albeit rather unceremoniously in a wheelbarrow, to this day). But, memory is a funny old thing, and who am I to question why that is what sticks?
But during those early years, everything was such a whirlwind. Much of my experience back then was of the positive and the bizarre. Regular trips to Wembley. Memories of camping out overnight outside The Riverside in early 1997 waiting to get tickets for the first Coca-Cola Cup Final. Wembley Way and the sea of red. Seeing world-class players wearing a Boro shirt. Juninho, Ravanelli, Emerson et al. Promotion, relegation, promotion, cup final, cup final, cup final. It was mental. We are fortunate enough to also live quite near Rockliffe Park, so my summers were spent getting the players’ autographs and having photos taken with them.
Strangely, being a Boro fan also came in handy at school. As it was the 90s, the majority of kids at my school were Newcastle United fans or followed Manchester United or Liverpool. When the then Head Teacher came in and did a quick survey of who everyone supported, I was the only one to raise my hand when asked if anyone supported Middlesbrough. That meant I was the only kid not on the
Abbey Junior School football team to join in when Bernie Slaven visited the school to film an episode of Bernie’s Soccer School for BoroTV (anyone remembers that?!).
It was a little personal vindication and reward for all the bullying and name-calling I got during my school years for supporting Boro. I got to go on TV. So there!
My bedroom was like inside of the club shop. Posters, books, shirts, wallpaper, rugs. You would’ve been hard-pressed to find something that didn’t have the Boro badge on it. Each game I went to was an adventure. That walk to the ground from the car park in the town centre to the ground was like Land’s End to John o’ Groats. Kitted-up to the max, face painted on more than one occasion. Always with flag-in-hand, even when it wasn’t an official “flag day”. I was mesmerised. Seeing Boro score was like waking up on Christmas Day. There were hugs a-plenty. They were the 'Halcyon days’. And it couldn’t last.
As the years went by, little things started chipping away at my love for Boro and the weariness of being a Boro fan crept in. And if I am being honest, there have been periods where I have fallen out of love with ‘supporting’. That is not to say I did not care about Middlesbrough or anything like that. What I mean is that the matchday experience became something of a routine. Like getting up in the morning, having breakfast and brushing your teeth. It became ‘mundane’, and my enjoyment diminished at times. And it was not purely down to what was happening on the pitch.
I still went to the Boro games. I would not miss them for anything. And I have even found myself going to more away games over the past few years, but for a time, those trips to The Riverside were a means to an end.
True, it has not helped that for a large majority of time, for the most part, the football has been dross. Take out the Karanka years, since Eindhoven it has been about as exciting following Boro as it would be if you were witnessing a sponsored silence (remember them?) for the best part of 15 years.
The ever-increasing influence that social media has on football fandom and football in general has not helped. 10 years ago, moronic opinions were limited to football phone-ins, but social media and those awful Fan TV channels have given credence to every comment, however unconstructive it is. The anger and frustration after every decision or announcement the club makes is tiresome. Boro fans will mock the supporters from Newcastle United and Sunderland for having overblown and grandiose ideas, hopes and expectation of their football club, yet we vilify our club for not spending money. We have a go at the recruitment team for bringing in players that may not perform to the expected standard. When we do spend money, we use that transfer fee as the tool as a weapon (see literally abusive comment about Britt Assombalonga).
Earlier this season, we win a couple of games and we are gearing up for promotion. We lose one game, and we aren’t good enough (and Britt Assombalonga is to blame…probably). Warnock is the Messiah after a win, but preparations are being made for the apocalypse after a defeat. Maybe I am overreacting, but it is tiresome. And it is this kind of ‘support’ that chips away at my love for the game, the fan culture, the experience.
I think back to the days when the Riverside was full, a sea of red shirts in the crowd and look at it now and think…success does not fit the narrative. It is easier to moan and have an excuse not to go. Sections of Boro fans are vocal when things are going wrong, yet only there for the good times when it suits them. Think back…we have just beaten Roma and progressed to the UEFA Cup Quarter-Finals, and only 24,000 fans turn up to watch the Basel game. Boro fans have been starved for success for so long, patiently waiting for their ‘seat at the table’, but seemingly pass on the opportunity. In 2014/15, our first real chance at promotion since relegation in 2009, our attendances surpass 20,000 just six times. And surpass 30,000 only twice (and one of those was for the final game of the season against Brighton when people rushed to buy tickets believing it could be a promotion party before we messed it up of course). Yet, nearly 40,000 make the pilgrimage to Wembley for the Play-Off Final.
The club themselves haven’t made it easy either. I think back to the letter the club sent out to sections of supporters back in 2009, appealing for restraint. “The persistent standing noise and constant banging…please stop. Make as much noise as you like when we score, but this constant noise is driving some fans mad”. Incredible isn’t it. For years, The Riverside became a bit of a soulless place. The initial excitement of the early-Robson era faded away and mid-table mediocrity fell in and slumped to relegation and mid-table Championship mediocrity. The Red Faction group have certainly made things better, and the work they do to improve the matchday atmosphere is highly impressive and greatly appreciated. However, as someone once said to me during a discussion about fan culture and stadium atmosphere…you don’t build Dortmund’s ‘Yellow Wall’ overnight.
You may just think I am having a whinge, but it reached a low point in 2016. The lowest of the low. When Boro were in back the Premier League during their ill-fated 2016/17 season. my brother was back in the area for the weekend visiting the family. I gave him my season ticket and I bought a separate ticket for the match against Chelsea. Our season tickets are in the west stand, but I decided to go and sit in the south stand for that game. For 90 minutes, I witnessed the worst of society. A group of idiots (I refuse to call them supporters) spent the idea game racially abusing Chelsea’s black players. The ones doing it could not have been older than 16 years of age, yet there they were yelling out the most abhorrent of language, being egged on by those around them. I informed the stewards, even pointed out to him those who had been doing it, yet they refused to do anything because they themselves had not heard it.
I think back to how I felt when I first started going to games, that little kid dressed from head-to-toe in red, face painted, flag in hand, watching on as Juninho, Merson, Ziege, Emerson, Ravanelli et al made my heart skip a beat, and I know that memory, that part of me, that part of my soul dies a little.
I started going to other stadiums, random stadiums to watch random games and random teams. I would go round the country to watch games on my own. My brother and I went on several trips abroad to watch games. We actually have Steve McClaren to thank for that, bizarrely. After failing to qualify for Euro 2008, we decided to book a week in Vienna whilst the tournament was going on. We experienced one of the best weeks of our lives. Just watching football with people from all corners of Europe. No hate, no abuse, no negativity. Just a load of football fans loving football. It was beautiful. But it gave me that glimpse of what else there was. There was something else going on, completely away from Middlesbrough.
Since then, we have been to watch matches in Spain, Italy and Germany. We went and watched seven games at Euro 2016 in France, and I have gone on to watch a couple of games in Mexico City. I became obsessed with the culture of football from around Europe and the world. I began to love the matchday experience again because it was so far removed from what I was experiencing week-in-week-out at The Riverside. I became a gammon’s nightmare, and what some sections would call a ‘hipster’. I became aware of the game outside of Middlesbrough. Outside of England. Outside of Sky Sports.
I want to be able to go to games again. I miss it. I really do. And I know thousands of other people up and down the country are waiting for the day it is safe to go to the stadiums again. I just want it to feel like it did when I was a kid. We have all heard the overused slogan of “football without fans is nothing” over the last few months, coming from the mouths of those from all four corners of the game. I wish that when fans do return, there is a difference and that fans are no longer taken for granted and are seen as the life-blood of a football club. I want there to be a difference at The Riverside. I want to see it bouncing again. I know that might be too much to ask because being positive does not fit in with the Teesside ‘modus operandi’. The Teesside ‘chip on the shoulder’ does not allow much scope for positivity. We cannot really stray too far from the underdog or ‘small team in Europe’ mentality.
I appreciate that things may not go back to how they were for some time…if they ever do. And even if there is some semblance of normality on the horizon, I appreciate that people may not have the finances to regularly go to games as they once did. I just want football to return to how it was for me. Those ‘halcyon days’. And I want everyone to feel that way too. The late Sir Bobby Robson gave a magnificent quote which ended… “clambering up those steps for the very first time…gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do anything about it, falling in love.”
When those turnstiles at The Riverside start clanging again, I hope that happens.