A forgettable debut on the pitch, but unforgettable off it
As part of the Boro Beginnings collaboration, @AyresomeGates told us about the first games he ever attended. His debut? A 0-0 draw against Oldham in the 80s.
As a toddler, of course he doesn't remember much, but the years that followed were, in his words, 'unforgettable'.
Fast forward to the early 90s and my memories get clearer. These were my YTS years in Boro fandom. Me and my brother both had club shop bedrooms - red and white kid-caves with Boro badges spewed all over everything; from rugs and bedspreads to lampshades and curtains. Mine was mint.
The club shop on Warwick Street was much more enticing to me than any sweetshop could ever be. It was effectively just a couple of cabinets, a counter and a staff-only stock room, but I adored it. It was like an Argos that only sold MFC merch. I’d beg my mum to drive us down after school, to pick up a window sticker, or a new cap, or a pin badge.
I can still see Derek and Pat, the pair who ran the place, clear as day - as if I only saw them yesterday. I knew them by name and they knew me. They were like surrogate grandparents, smiling at my wide-eyed wonder as they popped into the stock room to get me a box-fresh version of whatever my mum had agreed to this time. It was a magical place.
A Boro Disneyland. And the best bit? Every time you walked in and out, you caught a glimpse of those beautiful, historic gates, that over 20 years later, inspired my own Twitter handle.
The 91/92 promotion season is my most memorable early experience as a Boro bairn. By now, we had season tickets in the South Terrace (East lower, in Riverside new money) and having given some hard-earned cash to help keep the club afloat in 86, my family were long-time, paid-up members of MFC. We’d been bitten by the Boro bug and there was no going back. It was part of who we were. Part of our identity.
I’ve kept all my MFC junior membership cards, just like the one Jonny Woodgate shared on Instagram a couple of years back.
I remember going to get them made up at the start of every season. We’d pop into the tiny brick-built ticket office behind the north-east corner, and, as the staff member slipped the passport photo of mini-me into the plastic and pressed down on the machine, I remember feeling a puffed-chest swell of pride. After all, this card proved my membership in the best club in the world. Signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yours.
The simple act of stamping these identity cards was somehow symbolic for me. At nine years old, I was effectively marking the start of the Boro being indelibly imprinted on my own identity, forever more. Bring back Boro ID cards, I say. And give one to every Boro bairn.
My first taste of Boro success (and let’s face it, they’re few and far between), was seeing Lennie’s lions gain automatic promotion to the inaugural Premier League.
This souped-up version of the first division was soon-to-be-brought-to-you-by the half-time cheerleading (and sumo wrestling) razzmatazz experts, at some small-time outfit called Sky Sports. Whatever happened to them?
Surprisingly though, clinching a second-placed promotion was not the highlight of the 91/92 season for me. Instead, it was my little brother’s 7th birthday.
While Johnny Hendrie was my first Ayresome hero, for my brother it was Stuey Ripley. But, while I’d been lucky enough to meet Hendrie outside the Ayresome gates earlier in the season (finding him to be charming, hilarious and almost incomprehensively Scottish), my brother had yet to meet Rippers.
Until he saw a competition in the Gazette: Name your man-of-the-match for the chance to meet the player at the next home game. You guessed it, my mum entered for my brother, and they won!
But, even having got all dressed up, gone through the posh entrance, met Ripley and got their pictures printed in the following matchday programme, it didn’t end there.
Fast forward a few months to my brother’s birthday, on a sunny 7th May, 1992. It was a bumper, spring school holidays five-a-side football party (of course) at Stokesley Leisure Centre. After sweating around the sticky sports hall in our Evening Gazette shirts, we all piled back to ours for party food and cake, and naturally, to play ‘extra time’ in the back garden. But then suddenly, there was a knock at the front door.
“It’s locked! I haven’t got a key!” screamed my lifelong Boro fan Uncle John, through the opaque glass window in the door. “Whoever you are, you’ll have to go round the back!”
A few moments later, “round the back”, a garden full of red-faced kids in full Boro kits put their foot on the ball - and dropped their jaws in collective awe. Actual Stuart Ripley had just turned up. To our house.
“Alright lads?” quipped the golden-quiffed one, as he glided into the back garden. “I remember Ste’s mam saying it was his birthday today, so I thought I’d pop round for a kickabout. Shall I go in goal?”
Of course, when he’d asked my mum for our home address during their man-of-the-match photo meet at Ayresome Park, she’d thought that maybe sweet young Stuey was thinking of sending a signed card or summat. Instead, we got an in-person meet, individual photos, autographs galore and a kickabout in our garden with a pro. He even stayed for a cuppa and some suspiciously green football pitch birthday cake. Legend doesn’t come close.
And yes, my Uncle John has never been allowed to forget the fact that he screamed at one of Boro’s best ever home-grown talents, a future Premier League winner no less, to “go round the back”.
It’s impossible not to mention the final season - and the final competitive game - at our beautiful old ground. Two years after Lennie’s lions had clinched automatic promotion, Boro were on the verge of securing their Premier League status once again. But this time, it felt very different.
As a Man United and England legend, Bryan Robson’s arrival had raised Boro’s global profile overnight. As fans, we were excited enough by the shrewd captures of Cox, Pearson, Blackmore, Fjortoft and Fuchs - having no idea that they really were just for starters.
What followed in Robbo and Gibbo’s Riverside Revolution would have been virtually unimaginable for most of Boro’s 92 years at Ayresome Park. Every single Boro fan who experienced that transition and transformation will tell you, there is no other phrase to describe it other than “living the dream”.
But before all that, we were saying goodbye to our home of 92 years. Ninety-two! At the time, I remember feeling incredibly privileged to be there, and I feel that more and more, as the years go by.
I also remember thinking that it was a day that was perfectly poised for the ultimate ‘typical Boro’ moment (yes, like most kids, I’d been schooled in how “the Boro will always let you down”). Here was Robbo’s Red Army with one hand on the title. Win, and promotion was guaranteed. Can you imagine if we’d fluffed it?! But thankfully, the football gods were smiling down on Ayresome Park that day, as the entire Boro family bid a teary-eyed goodbye to our place of collective worship.
It was a surreal day in many ways - more like a carnival than a match. It was weirdly warm. Everyone under the age of 30 seemed to have their face painted. The lass from Gladiators, Diane Youdale (AKA Jet), was there. There was an opera singer in a bright red dress singing You’ll Never Walk Alone. New boy Uwe Fuchs posed for photos with old boy Wilf Mannion.
Record signing Jan Aage Fjortoft brushed shoulders with past club heroes who were old enough to be his great granddads. And of course, my hero Johnnie Hendrie (on the wing), fittingly wrote his name into the record books by scoring the last ever competitive goal to be scored at Ayresome Park. The Holgate roared and swelled like it had never done before. And like it would never do again.
The Boro had done the business. Robbo’s Red Army were promoted as champions at the first time of asking.
The whole day was a class act by everyone connected with the club - on and off the pitch. At the final whistle, with the obligatory pitch invasion, people looted souvenirs - turnstile signs, dial-a-duck sponsor boards, and even clumps of the hallowed turf to take home.
And although it was clearly the end of an era, any sadness and melancholy were matched with pride, passion and pure excitement of what was coming next. The name of our new home, The Riverside Stadium had been unveiled. And a new chapter of Boro Beginnings was about to be written. . .
Big thank you to @AyresomeGates for allowing us to use this piece!