Middlesbrough 2 Portsmouth 2: For the love of the Boro
As the Football League season returns into our lives, Maxwell Helyer is reminded of just why he has learned to love life outside of the Premier League.
In a fixture that was a Premier League clash just a couple of years ago, Pompey travelled up to the North East to enjoy some football underneath an atrocious thunderstorm, and watch a collection of eager 8 year old ball boys develop hypothermia.
Walking to the Riverside Stadium for the first home game of the season for the past three campaigns has done nothing but remind me of the same occasion 16 years ago. It was the first season I had held a season ticket. I was seven years old. Outside the ground was like a carnival. I had never seen so many people. I felt like an extra in Gandhi. Keen Teessiders were flocking to get their first experience of the fancy new ground, see how the Bovril tasted, and a look at the team Bryan Robson had assembled throughout his Bulkhaul-fuelled summer spending spree. There were burger vans all over the place, a whole series of memorabilia stalls selling knock-off Juninho Brazil shirts. I even remember the matchday programme, with Nick Barmby looking magnificent on the cover.
Yesterday, there was only one bloke, hiding underneath a bridge sheltering from the rain, selling scarves left over from last season. And a single, solitary cuisine outlet was on offer – ‘Planet Burgerland 2’ – the prequel was nowhere to be seen. Sad times, you may think.
Forget that. I love it in the Championship. Whilst it is hard to be a Boro fan most of the time, and the Riverside has been experiencing a slow-but-noticeable evacuation over the last 6-7 years, we were essentially overachieving by being in the Premier League for so long. And in reaching so many cup finals, what were we thinking? God knows why we gave the UEFA Cup a go…
A few seasons down in Division One to try and find some financial stability, bring in a local hero as manager, and nurture a fresh crop of Teesside-based talent is exactly what was needed. We were favourites for promotion last season. But by bringing in a well established manager, splashing cash on a (brilliantly unsuccessful) Scottish experiment, and developing the biggest wage bill in the Football League, we thought promotion would be far too straightforward.
The Boro is no longer an exotic elephant’s graveyard. Austerity is hitting hard. Walking towards the ground, it may look like a cup-final style queue has formed outside the ticket office; the reality is that the whole operation is being run by a pair of spotty 16 year olds who keep misplacing their card machine. Don’t even bother asking them for a fixture card. The same double act were working down in the concourse at half time. My pasty was burnt as hell, my pint was awful, and whilst the potential to complain would have usually provided the perfect distraction from an underwhelming opening day performance, the Boro weren’t playing half bad.
We were 1-0 up against a Portsmouth side whose tactics appeared to be heavily-influenced by the wrestling stylings of the Dudley Boyz. Pompey’s defence was making our petite striking pair of Scott McDonald and Marvin Emnes look like staff from Gringott’s Bank. Hell, their lanky strikers were dwarfing our diminutive defenders. But despite Pompey’s massive emphasis on physicality, the Boro were passing the ball well, and managed to slot home a well-worked goal.
The awful weather was even providing a source of entertainment. Austerity measures saw the number of match balls being cut down to just one, making the role of the ball boy even more vital – hence the high number of enthusiastic school boys posted around the side of the pitch (anything for a free half time hot dog). No shelter from the elements here. They are soaked through and flinching with each crack of thunder. Pretty funny though. There’s even the occasional lunatic sat on the front row in a vest, refusing to move despite the smorgasbord of empty seats behind him. They deserve mockery more than the poor children, but at the Boro, everyone gets a slice.
The second half was pretty much typical Boro; a terrible goal early on in the second half to allow Portsmouth a glimmer of hope after we had dominated the first half. Then another well-worked goal, this time Rhys Williams providing a nice, cool finish – the Aussie was easily our best player yesterday – he can hopefully keep his fitness together and avoid a move to the Premier League, as we are going to need his class in the centre of midfield if we are to stand a chance of pushing towards the top of the table.
Nicky ‘Bricklayer’ Bailey also put in a solid shift in the centre of the park. Since his move from Charlton – where he was a mercurial attacking midfielder, notching 25 goals in two seasons – he has failed to score at the Boro. Before Tony Mowbray arrived, Bailey was struggling to impress the fans, and was written off as another Strachan cock-up. But he’s been moulded into a pretty solid looking Championship player who will do well for the club.
Portsmouth of course found themselves an equaliser, in injury time too (I’d have been disappointed if it came any earlier really…). Two comedy deflections kept a woeful strike from the ancient Christian Dailly in play, and allowed Luke Varney to score the easiest chance he’ll get all season.
Despite missing out on the chance of an opening day win, the Boro still went one better than last season and avoided defeat. The team looked good and played some nice football, the kind of passing football Tony Mowbray has built a reputation of insisting upon. The division is tight and there is a lot to play for. Anybody can beat anybody, and just about every team can consider themselves in with a chance of a decent finish.
It’s for this reason that the Championship is such an exciting place to watch your team play football. However, despite the apparent desperation to reach the hallowed turf of the Premier League, I am content to see my team ply their trade in the second tier of English football for the time being. Where else could an ageing fat lad (heavyweight Grant Holt) lead his team to successive promotions? Where else could I enjoy a cameo appearance from Kanu, who has somehow only just turned 35? More importantly, where could I enjoy visits from, and away trips to, the likes of Brighton and Barnsley? The kind of genuine and responsibly-run clubs that give English football the charm it is famous for. Everyone wants to see the best players in the world, but it’s not so much fun when they are torturing your beloved team.
Despite the alluring financial rewards associated with promotion, there’s also a whole host of added pressures. Complying with the demands of Sky’s pre-planned schedule of fixtures. Results are essential, and a lack of them will see your manager’s head on a spike. Regardless of the mantra that continuity breeds success, impatience makes it impossible to follow. Investment (whether it is affordable or not) is essential else relegation is inevitable. And the stigma attached to relegation allows for the customary mass exodus of your best players and the potential beginnings of a downward spiral experienced by so many of the country’s best clubs. Good backroom management is essential, and this is something which Steve Gibson has realised. So many Boro fans are accusing him of a lack of commitment and determination, it’s a shame these fans don’t realise it is these two qualities that are actually making him employ his current transfer and wage policies.
For the most part, it is better to leave the politics of running a football club to those who know best, and to support your team as best as you can. And the 18,000 who turned up at the Riverside on Saturday are going to be the key to how well the season goes. There were promising signs on Saturday, signs that this could be our season. But isn’t it the same every season? All we can hope for is an entertaining year of football, enough Yorkie’s behind the bar at half time, and the long-term sustainability of the Boro. Just as long as we are back in the UEFA Cup in the next five years, Gibbo…