2022 – the strangest year in Boro’s history? 2023 – the most glorious for fifty years?
Nick Hornby got it right all those years ago in Fever Pitch, just when football was beginning it’s transition from a working class pursuit, looked down on and vilified by cultural commentators, mired in a seemingly endless cycle of violence and male aggression, to a middle class one, with a Pavarotti soundtrack. The new ballet for edgy cultural thrill seekers looking for authenticity. Being a real football supporter has got little to do with choice, or pleasure or glory. That, ironically enough, is exactly what it means for the new fan. The fan that actively chooses their team, generally speaking because they have a chance of winning the Champions League, have billionaire foreign owners, and can be used as another high fashion luxury accessory for their glossy lifestyle.
Real football supporters do not choose. They are chosen, as a result of family or geography. Anyone who chooses their team is a consumer, not a fan. It’s a community, a roots thing. You go to your first game as a young kid, and generally speaking, that’s it, you’re hooked. And, apart from a few possible mini breaks for University or Child rearing, when there are more pressing things to attend to, that’s you for life. And there’s nothing you can do about it – it’s a life sentence that brings heartbreak, disappointment and endlessly dashed hopes. And they are just the good times.
So, for the average supporter, of small to middling teams, when some success comes around, you have to cherish it, to savour it, because you fear, deep inside, that before too long it will have evaporated, and all you’ll be left with are memories and faint hopes yet again. This is what it is to be a supporter of Middlesbrough FC, a team from “just a small town in Europe”. There have been memorable periods in our history, since I went to my first game in 1968, both of success and abject, catastrophic failure: promotions, relegations, on the verge of liquidation, Cup finals, domestic and European, even cup wins. Well, alright, one cup win. But the yardstick that all supporters of my age use to measure Boro’s current prospects, is the celebrated Jack Charlton team and the season of 1973 – 74. No team has ever come close to that perfection, that total dominance. Some have come dabbled with our emotions: the Rioch fairytale rise from the ashes, the days of Juninho, Ravanelli, and Emerson were a crazy joy ride; the European adventures under McClaren; Karanka’s supremely functional team and their promotion (our last) to the Premier League. None has generated the same, certain confidence that we would win every match, of that season. Until now.
In some ways, those of us who were lucky enough to see the emergence of the Charlton team, have suffered in the same way that the same generation suffered by watching England win the 1966 World Cup. You think that it’s always going to be that way, that England and Boro winning things, is just a part of the natural order of things. It set us all up for a painful journey of readjustment, as we slowly realised that the success we witnessed was just a blip in a longer, well-established pattern of mediocrity.
It is with some trepidation that I have to report, that now, fifty years later, the current team and manager might just be worthy successors to Charlton’s men. Trepidation because, over the years, I’ve been close to making the same pronouncement a couple of times, only for any early promising signs to disappear to be replaced by the usual disappointments, leaving me feeling rather silly that I had been so optimistic. What makes the current situation so unusual is that it was only a year ago that I was on the verge of making the same prediction. It was around about now, probably peaking with the FA cup win over Spurs in March last year, that I found myself thinking that Chris Wilder’s team was rapidly turning into one of my all time favourite Boro teams.
Some history is required, children. Bear with me, particularly if you clicked on the blog hoping for some bog standard Tory bashing. Chris Wilder had been appointed to replace Neil Warnock, an old war horse with limited tactical acumen, whose effectiveness as a manager had started to exhibit the Law of Diminishing Returns. He deserves great credit for saving us from relegation, and for resurrecting the Boro careers of Dyksteel, and Bola, for accidentally finding an excellent defensive partnership involving McNair and Fry, and not least, for rescuing Duncan Whatmore from injury blighted, no contract, no man’s land. For a while it worked. Until it didn’t and he was replaced by Wilder. Let’s not forget that securing his services was a real, coup for a club the size and status of Boro. He had been manager of the year two years earlier, and had a reputation for tactical innovation. That, plus our changes in the scouting and player recruitment department, made it seem as if at last, we were finally embracing the 21st century.
And it all started so well. Wilder introduced a high, all action pressing game. For his first few games in charge, the players managed it for about 65 minutes before they ran out of steam, but eventually, fitness improved and so did results. The form of Isaiah Jones and Matt Crooks on the right hand side of midfield, and the all action displays of Marcus Tavernier, meant that we were exciting to watch and never seemed to know when we were beaten. The January transfer window promised much in the way of strikers. Admittedly, we had a dodgy keeper, but that’s been the case for most of my time as a Boro fan. ( Take a bow Jim Platt, Stephen Pears, Mark Schwarzer and Darren Randolph) I was excited about the acquisition of the young Balogun from Arsenal, and interested in that of Connolly from Brighton, who had shown some form the previous year. I, like many Boro fans, thought we were certainties for the playoffs.
And then, it all went pear shaped. Balogun and especially Connolly had made us worse. Our only threat came from the right. If Jones was not at his best, we couldn’t find another way to score. Rumours of Wilder angling for a move to Burnley surfaced and would not go away. It still seemed though that, having sent Connolly and Balogun back, and with the promise of a summer transfer window to plug the obvious gaps, a real go at promotion was assured for this season. It started with high hopes, but before too long, it was clear that there were major problems behind the scenes.
To be fair, Wilder’s situation was not helped by the fact that right at the last moment before the season started, Marcus Tavernier was sold out of the blue. Tavernier was the beating heart of the side, a young. player full of energy, skill and commitment. Without him, we were half the side we had been the previous year. But that was his only defence. He was his own worst enemy. Wilder’s extremely unattractive quality of throwing certain players to the wolves publicly after a bad result came to the fore. Dyksteel, one of my favourite Boro players, was humiliated by Wilder, post match, several times. Dael Fry, another quality defender, also received the public dressing down treatment, and he suffered the ultimate humiliation for any pro – the half time substitution. That’s just not the way to keep the dressing room on your side.
Early in the season, when I was still thinking things would come right, I went see the game at Loftus Road, against QPR. It was a profoundly depressing experience. Without Tav in the middle of the park we were horribly lightweight in midfield, with no aggression or penetration. McGree, Mowatt, Howson, and Crooks were painfully slow and couldn’t tackle their way out of a damp paper bag. (To be fair to Crooks, who is ridiculously underrated by a section of supporters, he was struggling needing a hernia operation. The others had no such excuse) Defensively, we were shambolic. The breaking up of a really good defence the previous year to include new signing Lenihan seemed another bizarre achievement for Wilder. Although we came back in the second half, it confirmed for me that, far from being promotion challengers, we were well and truly in the relegation mix.
It was hard to fathom. What on earth had happened to the great side of just five or six months earlier? Could it be true that the Messiah, Wilder, was really just a very naughty boy? Just another charlatan? Confusion reigned. It was the biggest turnaround in performance and expectations that I can remember in all my time as a fan. A few months ago, I was convinced that Wilder was the answer, and that at last we had made a managerial appointment that indicated Steve Gibson, bless his saintly cotton socks, knew what he was doing. Many Boro fans shared that view it seemed.Now, he is an object of scorn, for the failings that became ever clearer. I’m not one for vilifying managers, generally. Obviously, I make an exception for Tony Pulis, whose approach to football was positively horrendous. In the dying days of his reign, I would have rather visited the dentist without anaesthetic, than be forced to watch Boro play. Less painful. I will, though, make an exception for Wilder. And I have finally worked out who it was he reminded me of so much. He must be the Love Child of Mr Sugden, from Kes. A dead ringer.
But now, it’s happened again. From despair to high expectations in a couple of months. Carrick has moulded an exceptional team, rescuing Wilder’s write offs and adding real quality to the squad. What’s more, he’s done it quietly and calmly, not playing the big I Am, and he’s done it by getting us to play sublime football, from back to front in the blink of an eye. I’ve wracked my brain and can’t get past the idea that the current team is playing the best football I’ve seen Boro consistently produce, probably since the John Neal side of the late Seventies, early Eighties. At its best the Robson Juninho team was exhilarating, but there were also some shambolic performances along the way.
A few observations on what has happened under Carrick:
- The Remarkable Transformation of Mr Chuba Akpom
Akpom has gone from ordinary, journeyman striker, picked up cheapish from Greece, and then shipped out on loan when it was clearly not working out for him, to a reincarnation of Mark Viduka. Where on earth did that come from? Admittedly, he has some Arsenal Youth pedigree behind him, but that was a long while ago now.
Lovely instant control with back to goal, strong and very diffiult to shake off the ball, great passing and vision for a pass, great movement and deadly in the box. There was no sign of any of those qualities in his first spell at the club. More proof that Carrick is actually a necromancer, with little wax dolls of all the players that he casts spells on at Midnight in his office. It’s the only explanation.
- The emergence of Mr Hayden Hackney, fully formed, as a top class central midfielder, straight from the Academy. See point above about wax models.
In all my time supporting the mighty Reds, I have never seen a better player emerge from the Academy or the Reserves, apart from David Armstrong. From his first game (and well done Leo Percovitch for throwing him in) it was obvious he was really good. When he receives the ball in the middle of midfield from the defence, he’s on the half turn and he runs forward, glides, carrying the ball effortlessly. His range of passing is outstanding and he is always looking to pass forward, in between defenders. Added to that he works his socks off and loves a tackle.
The only thing he is missing at the moment is goals, but let’s not be greedy. The real mystery here is how Wilder, paid a huge amount of money for his footballing expertise and judgement, couldn’t see this. According to him, no one from the Academy was ready for the the first team. Not ready, my arse. Hackney is a future England player – or he would have been if he hadn’t already plumped for Scotland. That’s England’s loss and their gain.
3. Riley McGree fulfilling his potential.
At the beginning of the season I was unimpressed. He struck me as this year’s Adam Forshaw: neat, tidy, but with little threat. Definitely not a central midfielder and much more effective when he played higher up the pitch. Now, he’s unrecognisable. Nominally on the left, he drifts all over the pitch and finds space in between the lines, and is a visionary passer. He also scores goals. Fabulous
4. Marcus Forss is another player whose performances have made Wilder look more than a little silly. According to the great Sheffield Oracle, Forss was a “developmental player”, a “project”. What nonsense. He’s got a searing turn of pace, closes opposition defenders down relentlessly, provides assists from the right and is a great finisher. He’s been an unsung player this season, but one who is instrumental in the way we play.
Lenihan has justified his purchase in the summer, and has become a key element in our steadily improving defence. A future Captain, when Johnny Howson hangs up his boots.
So, what does the future hold? We will go up, perhaps even in second place, automatically. I firmly believe that if Carrick had started the season in charge it would ourselves and Burnley who would be miles out in front of the pack, just like Charlton’s champions were all those years ago. Carrick’s reputation, and his obvious eye for a player will mean that our recruitment for the Premier League will be more effective than it’s ever been. I hope he can revitalise some of the casualties, players who still have a great deal to offer, imho. I’m thinking of Bola, Dyksteel, and Jones, in particular, who looks a pale shadow of the player that broke through last year.
Carrick will be much coveted by any Premier League club that sacks their manager next season, but I get the impression that he, unlike Wilder, really likes being here and will want to see out the project to its conclusion. We will also be lucky to hold on to the players I’ve highlighted. It’s likely that Akpom, McGree, Hackney, Forss will be the subject of big money bids. We need to resist them if we are going to build something here.
Of course, we won’t really find out about whether Carrick is the real deal until he’s lost five on the bounce and someone throws their season ticket at him in the dug out. Responding to pressure is the key test (the test that Karanka spectacularly failed in our last promotion season), particularly in the Premier League where the quality of opposition is frighteningly high. Should that happen, we can confidently expect some of the board warriors to emerge, telling us that they called it at the time and that appointing Carrick was a mistake. He will of course have a losing run at some time. It’s easier to get out of it with the support of the crowd, but my hunch is that he is made of the right stuff and will find the answers to turn it round.
We are set for a really enjoyable few years, I reckon. And part of that pleasure is to acknowledge that, at last we have worthy inheritors of the mantle of 73/74. Something is stirring down in TS3. Something beautiful and special. Perhaps Hornby wasn’t completely correct about the pain and angst of being a football supporter. Maybe, just maybe, this is a unique time when your team provide pure, sublime joy. The beautiful game is even more beautiful when your own, beloved team are playing it. Long may it continue.
Final point: It’s hard to shake off years of underachievement, and the ingrained, heady mixture of fear and pessimism that has been ingested over the many years of standing on the Holgate. It was like a toxic radiation cloud, post Nuclear Armageddon, with dangerous levels of Pipe smoke, Bovril fumes, and Bitter Cynicism.
Typical Bloody Boro is never very far from the surface, when opportunity knocks. On Saturday we are away to West Bromwich Albion. After this particular post, this is the only image that will do.
Up The Boro.