Conversations with Steve Welsh (Middlesbrough)

Posted by on Nov 15, 2011 in Conversations with | No Comments
Conversations with Steve Welsh (Middlesbrough)
The latest in our Conversations series sees us entering into discussions with Steve Welsh. An avid Middlesbrough fan, Steve is the deviser of Miniboro.com, a site that has attracted equal praise for its content and design – for Steve is as talented an illustrator as there is in the blogosphere at this time. Here, Steve ponders the Teesside club’s tentatively encouraging start to the 2011-12 season and provides us with insights into his site’s raison d’être. 

LR: Middlesbrough have enjoyed a super start to the season under Tony Mowbray – one that is all the more remarkable given how little the team has changed in the past year. At times, however, the team has often failed to convert draws into wins and suffered losses to Nottingham Forest and Southampton. Do you think the addition of a judicious loan signing might ensure the club retains its lofty position? Or do you think the squad is good enough as it is to mount a serious challenge?

SW: Nobody at Boro expected the start we’ve had this season. There was cautious optimism but certainly no more than that. A few of us were having a crafty look at the final play-off spot, but most Boro fans were guessing at a 10th – 12th place finish whilst Mogga’s rebuilding work continued. Of course the reality has been a very pleasant surprise, Mowbray has been pulling rabbits out of hats since day one, but its difficult to see how we can maintain our current form without some form of investment.

Our financial position might be healthier since the departures of Lita, Boyd and the painfully fragile Didier Digard but loan deals remain our only genuine option when it comes to recruitment. I’d love to see Mogga unearth some cut price gems like he did at WBA e.g. Dorrans, Bednar and former Boro youth product James Morrison. But even if he is successful in bringing in a few extra bodies, I can’t help feeling we are only one or two injuries away from a very difficult run indeed. It’s far too early to judge our latest (free) acquisition Nigerian Bartholomew Ogbeche, but the fact the crowd has no expectations of him can only work in his favour.

All that said, I am refreshingly optimistic about Boro’s transfer dealings these days. We’ve finally shifted to a more pragmatic approach; this being in stark contrast to the panic buying that brought the likes of Mido and Alves to the club. In fact when Mogga first joined the club he revealed there was no Scouting System in place at all, unbelievable considering we spent 11 years in the Premier league. He also bemoaned the lack of a Sports Scientist despite our much heralded ‘state of the art’ training facilities. The fact we didn’t have any specialist staff within its specialist walls just seems farcical now.

Mowbray has come in and addressed each and every issue with minimal fuss. He’s also put former Boro players like Colin Cooper and Gary Gill on the payroll suggesting he’s trying to create an old fashioned ‘ boot room’ or ‘boro dynasty’, where people don’t just have an association with the club but a deep affection for it. If he can instil that kind of loyalty and commitment to new players coming in, then who knows how far we can go.

During the last transfer window our priority was to hang on to the likes of Bates, Bennett and Williams, come this January it will be the same again. However, if we can grab a couple of loan signings along the way, even if they are just squad players, it may give us the breathing space we need to mount a credible promotion push. Other Boro fans might shoot me down for saying this, but i think going up this year might be one season too early. Of course if it happens I’ll certainly take it, but if not, then I’m happy that we have a much stronger foundation on which to build than we’ve had for a very long time.

LR: I was impressed when I saw Boro in a 0-0 draw at Reading recently even though the most heralded player of all, Joe Bennett was missing through suspension. Marvin Emnes has started the season well but took his time to adjust at the Riverside. Do you have confidence he can continue his good form? – and in retrospect, does the battling ability of Scott McDonald and Barry Robson lead you to reappraise Gordon Strachan’s influence on the current squad?

SW: With regards to Marvin, I think the phrase “took his time to adjust” is putting it mildly. People forget he was signed by Southgate when we were still in the Premiership and that he’s been with us for well over 3 years now.

He was originally referred to as “one for the future” and more worryingly as “a project” but his prolonged absence from the first team was baffling, especially given his £3.2 million price tag. Something didn’t quite add up in those early days and “Project Emnes” became an increasingly detached figure, like some kind of Anglo-Dutch experiment that had been shelved due to a shortfall in research grants or government funding.

If you fast forward to Gordon Strachan’s era things got even worse. He was cruelly given just 45 mins to impress his new boss, but Wee Gordon had already made his mind up, opting to replace him with serial journeyman Marcus Bent, which might give you an idea as to the ‘total football’ that was on offer at the time.

Mind you saying that, his brief loan spell at Swansea seemed to be the making of him, he toughened up, found his touch and most importantly for him and us, started scoring goals. When he returned people were still sceptical, a lot of people felt we should cash in while we had the chance, and that these little glimpses of quality were just a flash in the pan. But thankfully he proved a lot of people (myself included) wrong and he seems to be revelling in the style of football Mowbray is trying to get us to play. My only concern is that we do tend to rely quite heavily on him now – clubs have been quick to realise that a lot of our best stuff goes through him, which means he gets a lot of close attention these days. But as long as the rest of the team are pulling their weight and supporting him, I don’t see any reason why his form can’t continue, certainly at this level if not higher.

To answer you other question, reappraising Gordon Strachan’s influence on the current squad is certainly an interesting exercise. For whatever reason, players simply did not respond to his methods and those that might have done were never given the chance to prove it. You lamented the fact Joe Bennett was missing when Boro faced Reading this season, yet this is the same player Strachan was happy to let go if he got an offer in the region of £150,000. I’ve already touched on the short shrift he gave Emnes, going so far as to refer to him a ‘just a runner’. You then contrast this with some of the players he brought in. Kris Boyd for example was an absolute disaster, he didn’t so much bring balls under control as wait for them to hit his massive frame; he made Viduka look industrious and Michael Ricketts positively mobile. His subsequent sale was met with the kind of celebrations usually reserved for deadline day signings. Nicky Bailey is another interesting scenario, he was shocking under Strachan and seemed like a truly awful purchase. However, after a hasty positional switch under Mowbray, he is now one of our most consistent performers, a driving force in midfield and a real fan favourite.

The likes of McDonald, Thompson and Robson are certainly likeable, hardworking players but I don’t think they will ever change my opinion of Strachan’s influence on the current team. The one thing that did change though was my opinion of Strachan as a person. The way in which he left the job was extremely dignified. He pretty much held his hands up and said “this isn’t working is it?” He didn’t ask the club for a penny in compensation and he paved the way for Mowbray to fulfil what most Boro fans have always considered to be his destiny.

If Gordon Strachan is afforded any kind of legacy at this club, it should be that his final act was one that best served the interests of the club and its fans, and for that I will always be truly thankful.

LR: I agree that Strachan has always come across a decent man so it’s encouraging that you feel Boro fans should regard him with respect. Of course the tightening of the purse strings may be down to prudence after so many big signings seemed to be unworthy of their fees, but how is the deeper financial situation at the Riverside? Steve Gibson has reassured everyone that the situation is stable and he continues to convey, to outsiders at least, a real commitment to the club – but in a region that has been as hard hit as any by the recession, fans abilities to attend a 46 game season must inevitably be curtailed. How do you envisage Boro’s financial fortunes playing themselves out over the next couple of years?

SW: It’s a difficult question to answer since no one really knows the internal workings of the club apart from Mr Gibson himself. So all I can really do is give you my own thoughts and interpretations. Whether they are right or not is up for debate but here goes anyway.

Two quotes spring to mind when i think about Boros recent fortunes, both fiscally and metaphorically. Firstly, Keith Lamb (our recently departed Chief Exec) who once stated that “the town will get the club it can afford”. Whilst Steve McClaren, as part of one of his characteristic charm offensives, opted for Middlesbrough fans “needed to be educated”. Obviously both comments led to some fairly emotive reactions from the fans, but strangely enough both have borne fruit in recent times. I’ll try to explain…

In my opinion the main issue we’ve had at the Boro, is that we became far too accustomed to the lifestyle we were living. For instance, if there was problem up front we would simply go out and sign Viduka, Hasselbaink and Yakubu. Relegated from the Premier League you say? Don’t worry we’ll get Paul Merson and Gazza to drop into the Championship to help dig us back out. Looking back at stuff like that it sounds absurd but at the time it felt like second nature. Even when you look at flops like Afonso Alves, you’re still talking about £12 million pounds. This from a club who as recently as 1991-92 were scratching around in the loan market for the likes of Rab Shannon and a virtually arthritic Brian Marwood.

Yet despite everything that has happened in recent years and the inevitable tightening of belts etc, there are still people choosing to criticise Steve Gibson for ‘not putting his hand in his pocket’. Yes the odd signing here or there wouldn’t go a miss, but the days of ‘splashing the cash’ are long gone. This goes back to what I was saying about ‘re-educating” and getting “the club we can afford’. The last 10 – 15 years have been the exception not the norm and whilst I do believe the club is skint at present, I also believe we are not on our knees, not like we have been in the past at least (86 etc).

I firmly believe that Steve Gibson is trying to rebuild the club once again, only with a different set of blueprints this time round. It looks like he’s trying to build a solid foundation on which to base things, rather an over styled ‘show home’ that is constantly trying to keep up with the Jones’. We’ve already slashed the wage bill from £26m to £12m and whilst it may be an overused term; we really are going through a transitional period, but one that should see us better off in the long term.

You asked about the spending power of our fan base and I agree there isn’t a lot of disposal income on Teesside at moment. The club not only needs to recognise this but also put something in place (long term) that addresses it. Various schemes have been suggested recently and they can only be a good thing for MFC. However, I think the problem with football as it stands (not just at MFC) is that the mentality of the average fan has changed. People no longer go to a game ‘in the hope of 3pts’, they now expect the performance and the result to be relative to the amount of money they have spent. That is what happens when you turn something into a commodity or a business; people want ‘value for money’. But value for money is impossible with football because it’s a game, a sport, it isn’t fair and you don’t always get what you deserve.

For that reason I think the connection between the fans and the club needs to get back to an emotional level rather than a financial one. From the majority of Boro fans I’ve spoken to this season I think we are returning to that kind of connection (especially with the Mogga factor etc). Whether or not that can be translated into bums on seats remains to be seen but the signs are certainly there.

LR: That’s very eloquently put and I couldn’t agree more with you on the need for realism and for the re-establishment of emotional connections. Moving away from on and off pitch matters at the Riverside for the moment, I’d like to ask you about your website and in particular the illustrations which, in my humble opinion, are really terrific – I understand that your Ayresome Park illustration is set to feature as a display graphic at the new National Football Museum. Run us through a quick background history of the site and your own motivation for getting involved.

SW: The original intention was to take a retrospective look at the first 100 issues of Boro’s long standing fanzine Fly Me to the Moon. My own collection had been gathering dust on top of a wardrobe for about 20 years, until one day I decided to dip back in to a few of them. Before I knew it I had lost about 4 or 5 hours. It was incredibly absorbing; the thing that struck me most was not just the quality of the writing but also the parallels that could be drawn from then and now. There were some genuinely important issues and historical events happening at the time (88-93), racism, Hillsborough, ID cards, all-seater stadiums etc. It was a really important time not only for Boro but also for football in general (it’s been quite weird to see how many of these themes have reared their heads again in the last few weeks). I also wanted to see how much of what we remembered had been watered down, forgotten about, or rose tinted over the years.

The problem I had was that transcribing each issue by hand was a very laborious and time consuming task. To make matters worse, people naturally wanted the content to change regularly to keep their interest in the site going. So I decided I would need to include a couple of extra sections to keep people happy while I worked chronologically through the back catalogue. I began a series of interviews with ex-players (which is still on-going) and also started to test the water with a couple of my own illustrations, inspired by the work of Zoran Lucić via his Sucker for Soccer collection.

The initial feedback from the illustrations was really surprising and people began to ask if they would be made available as posters. So I tried to think of how I could move things forward without it just becoming a series of generic ‘man kicks ball’ posters. I started toying with the idea of doing posters where the main subject wasn’t even present. I was always a big fan of the Silk Cut adverts growing up, the fact the message was always implied/subtle and that not everyone got them. So instead of an image of the player I decided to incorporate clues or a cryptic message as to their identity. Sometimes they would be based on a player trait, other times a nickname but essentially I wanted people to work a little harder to work out who it referred to, or why that particular image had been used.

The first few I did were obviously Boro related, a silver bullet for Bernie “The Wolfman” Slaven for instance. It was at that point the lads over at In Bed With Maradona got in touch and asked if I’d consider turning my attentions to some of the bigger names in world football, Cruyff, Maradona, Pele etc with a view to creating a gallery on their site. Once that gallery went live things really started to snowball. Unfortunately by this time the illustrations and interviews were starting to take precedent over the fanzine archive. I do intend to return to the fanzine archive (currently standing at 27 issues), but it occurred to me that once all 100 issues had been documented, I would have to take the site in another direction anyway, so I decided to plough on with the illustrations and just add the odd back issue of FMTTM here and there.

As the illustrations became more popular, a few of the subjects gave their own posters an official thumbs up. Craig Hignett, Jan Aage Fjørtoft, Tony Mowbray, The New York Cosmos and most notably Edgar Davids have all commented in the last few months which has been particularly pleasing for me. I’m still trying to keep a happy balance between Boro and non-Boro pieces but that’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. For that reason I thought I would do the Ayresome Park piece you mentioned, mainly to try and compensate for the lack of Boro posters of late. It was a complete surprise when the National Football Museum got in touch; they’ve told me it will be used as a graphic panel for a section on Engineer Archibald Leitch who designed many early 20th century football grounds including Ayresome Park. I’m really proud of its inclusion and also chuffed that the Boro will definitely be represented when the museum reopens in Manchester early next year.

With regards to the illustrations in general, I’m still developing my style at the moment, I don’t think I’m as polished as a lot of the other illustrators out there, people like Stanley Chow, Graeme Bandeira, Dan Leydon or Phil Disley to name a few. But I do like to think I have an eye for something a bit different and that my pieces at least make people smile if nothing else. I’ve recently started putting my designs on a range of t-shirts and also have a few other discussions which are on-going, so it’s pretty exciting at the moment and I’m looking forward to seeing how it all develops.

LR: Fascinating – both my fellow blogger Lloyd and I have an unhealthy obsession with the man Simon Inglis has dubbed “Engineering Archie’. On the subject of the interviews, I have very much enjoyed the ones you have run so far, in particular the one with Anthony Vickers of Untypical Boro fame. For the players ones, how did you set about gaining access? Was it a headache at all getting people to agree and are there still agents hanging around looking for a cut? Beyond this and to finally return to the club itself, most people would acknowledge Middlesbrough’s right to consider themselves a top flight club – but can the club hope to return and exceed the high points of the past two decades – League Cup victory and UEFA Cup finalists etc.?

SW: Gaining access to players has been a very hit and miss process. It’s been a mixture of introductions, patience and simply being in the right place at the right time. I had no real game plan and a lot of it was done to luck, Craig Hignett offered this insight when I played against him in a recent charity match at the Riverside ‘you sounded fairly normal, so I thought yeah why not’. That’s pretty much the way I’ve played it, I try not to be too formal but not too familiar either. I see if they have the time to do it in the first place and then choose my questions carefully. I should also say a special thank you to Andy Clark and Graeme Bandiera who both helped out enormously in setting up my Slaven and Hamilton interviews.

The thing that has surprised me most is how receptive most of the players have been, in the majority of cases they simply want to tell their story and are happy to share their memories with the fans. I think it’s a definite advantage if you are speaking to ex-pros, since they can be a little bit more relaxed with their answers. All the media training and years of giving no-committal answers to bland questions must take its toll. So I try to make things as interesting as possible for the player and at least try to uphold my end of the bargain by doing a bit of research. The last thing I want is a list of answers that include “My favourite restaurant is Nandos” and “My favourite TV show is TOWIE” etc.

Some interviews have taken a week or two whereas others, like the one I did with Don Burluraux, took 6 months from start to finish. I don’t think there is any real point in chasing people for their answers because all you will get back are hurried responses. I’d much rather get a quality interview that took 6 months, than some generic answers that were turned around in 24hrs. I’m hoping to broaden the interview section, so that it’s not just players but a wider circle of people connected with Middlesbrough Football Club, which is how the interview with Anthony Vickers came about. I really enjoyed that one and he put an awful lot of time and effort into his answers (as have most of the people I’ve spoken to).

It’s often been a fine line between asking challenging questions and not over stepping the mark, but I’m pleased to say that no one has refused to answer anything yet. A good example was when I asked Bernie Slaven what the source of friction was between himself and ex-boss Lennie Lawrence, he replied ‘It was a clash of personalities… he didn’t have one’. So it’s been great when players are as open and as forthcoming as that, to be honest each interview I’ve done has been a bit of a treat for me too.

To answer your second question re the good times returning, it’s worth considering exactly what the club achieved during that short space of time. In addition to winning the League Cup and our UEFA Cup Final appearance, we also enjoyed two more League Cup Finals, an FA Cup Final and two consecutive European adventures that brought with them the scalps of Lazio, Stuttgart and Roma. Without doubt a number of well-resourced top flight clubs would kill for that kind of run and I feel privileged to have seen it in during my own life time.

Recreating or exceeding those heights is a very tall order indeed. So instead of looking at that time as a yard stick to aim for, I think we need to be looking at the smaller more immediate battles that can be won. Clearly getting the club on a sound financial footing is of paramount importance. On the playing side we certainly have the right man for the job in Mowbray and behind the scenes we have a Chairman who is the envy of many other supporters and with good reason too. Personally I don’t subscribe to the “getting us back to where we belong” mantra, you only need look as far as Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds etc. to see where that attitude gets you. To make this club successful again will require a degree of sacrifice, a lot of hard work and a certain amount of pragmatism. Mowbray appears to be installing that mentality into his players and hopefully some of the fans too. We can be proud of what we’ve achieved in recent times but let’s not dine out on it for the next 20 years as we slip further away from where it all happened.

I’d love to see us replicate those times again but I honestly feel that, if it is to happen, then it will be another generation of Boro fans who are there to enjoy it. For now I will settle for attractive football, a crop of home grown stars giving their all and a true Boro Legend in the dugout.

Steve can be followed on twitter at @miniboro_dotcom

Rob Langham
Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne Rouge) is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 47 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Football Attic, The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

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