Great Football League Teams 23: Middlesbrough, 1986-7
Number 23 in our Great Teams series features a club that has virtually come full circle since the tumultuous events of 1986/87. Significant to the fans, ignored nationally, yet this is a tale of survival against the odds and ultimately triumph. For more about Middlesbrough than anyone could ever need, please visit Smog Blog.
We now know for certain that the 25th anniversary of Middlesbrough’s liquidation won’t repeat the near-fatal outcome of that year. Things were bad enough on the pitch in 1986, as Boro succumbed to Third Division football for the second time in their existence, but it was in the boardroom where drama threatened to develop into crisis. Club debts were revealed to be bigger than initially thought. Chairman Alf Duffield resigned after a crashing row with new manager Bruce Rioch, leaving a string of bank loans, whilst money was still owed to previous owner, Charlie Amer, for the construction of his ill-starred sports hall at Ayresome Park.
In May 1986, Boro called in the liquidator. Existing director, Steve Gibson tried to keep the financial problems under wraps, but details soon leaked to the press. The Ayresome gates were padlocked. Club staff, including Rioch, were sacked. The existing players were allowed to find pastures new, an offer taken up by Peter ‘Judas’ Beagrie, the Middlesbrough born winger who quickly moved on to Sheffield United.
Ultimately, Gibson was able to stave off Boro’s death at the last minute. A consortium of local businessmen underwrote all existing debts and wound up the old club whilst starting afresh (which is why, until several years ago the crest bore the 1986 logo). The deals were signed with ten minutes of the Football League’s deadline to spare, which led to years of mistrust with the authorities as it was felt there had been a conscious effort to hang the club out to dry as a cautionary tale to others that flirted with debt.
This happened on 22 August 1986. The following day saw the start of the new league calendar, yet with Ayresome Park still locked, the team was forced to fulfil its home fixture against Port Vale at Hartlepool’s Victoria Ground. Rioch had remained, along with Assistant Manager Colin Todd and the rump of his squad, which consisted mainly of youngsters and journeymen. Tony Mowbray had played his first game for the side at the tender age of 18. Now 22, he took over the captaincy after Don O’Riordan left and set about winning the hearts and minds of Teesside. Alongside him in central defence was another Teessider, Gary Pallister. Signed from Billingham Town in 1984, Pally was 21 and already exhibiting signs of future greatness.Former Everton Junior, Gary Parkinson, played at right-back. On the left was Colin Cooper, a graduate of the youth system. Stuart Ripley and Gary Gill, two more locally sourced youngsters, were pressed into first team action on the wing and central midfield respectively, and up front we had Bernie Slaven, a Scottish forward who had cost £25k the previous October. The Wolfman had been playing semi-professionally for Albion Rovers and working part-time as a gardner. Having written to each club in the top two English divisions, touting his services, only Middlesbrough and Bradford City offered him trials and, to our immense fortune, it was Teesside that worked out a deal for him.
The Port Vale match ended in a 2-2 draw, both our goals coming from onetime Bristol Rovers striker, Archie Stephens. Along with Beagrie and Brian Laws, Archie had applied to the Football League to have his contract cancelled back in July due to non-payment of wages. Luckily for us, only the former went. Stephens stayed, as did tough defender Laws, and both featured in this one. His second goal, a 25-yard volley from his left foot was described by the forward as the best he ever scored.
Just under three and a half-thousand souls turned up to Victoria Ground that afternoon. Few of the spectators understood that this was one of the most important matches in our history. Had we failed to fulfil the fixture, Boro would have been thrown out of the League, almost certainly marking the end for us. No doubt some determined supporters would have knocked together a semi-professional set-up, featuring some local hardcore players and rising, phoenix-like, from whatever tier of the game we could get, but instead we got our club back.
Over the ensuing weeks, supporters discovered that not only had Boro survived, there was also a fair chance we’d be a pretty good team at this level. I can’t imagine anyone appreciating that, by happy chance, the squad featured a number of players who would go on to achieve full international honours and become the subject of massive, multi-million pound deals. Back then, there was only the momentum that came with realising we were alive as a football team and wanted to celebrate it by winning matches and roaring back. It took until mid-October for Boro to lose their first league game. The return to Ayresome attracted 6,499 fans and featured a 3-1 win over Bury – another Stephens brace and a typical moment of poachery from Slaven, who was already establishing a reputation for frequent offside decisions, frustratingly spending so long isolated deep in the opposition half that he could have struck up a conversation with their goalkeeper whilst all the action took place at the other end of the pitch.
Enthused with self-belief and a growing sense of destiny, the side didn’t lose from mid-March until the end of the season, a 13-game unbeaten stretch that took in ten victories and an emotional 2-0 win over Doncaster on the closing day to guarantee second place and promotion. This last match has been immortalised on a YouTube video that is more memorable for the antics of our strong away support than anything taking place on the field. Emotions spilling over, the fans threaten a number of pitch invasions and it’s all the authorities can do to make them stand behind the line but actually on the turf. Celebratory rather than intimidating, the final whistle brings a surge of relief and triumph to the fore as a wave of stonewash covers the pitch. Nine months before, they very nearly had no club to support. With the final whistle comes confirmation that we’re in surprisingly rude health, roaring back from bankruptcy and, critically, with a certain future.
Sheer momentum led to a successive promotion in 1988 and Boro blinking in the bright lights of top flight football. With a few fine additions, this was still very much a small side crammed with over-achieving youngsters, one that was too often found wanting against the country’s elite. All our luck with injuries ran out. The loss of Mowbray for long swathes of the campaign mattered. Back in the second division, other teams had discovered the pool of youthful talent we’d produced and started chipping away at it. Pallister went during 1989/90 for a record £2.3m and established himself as a crucial element of Alex Ferguson’s first great Manchester United team. He could be replaced. Alan Kernaghan had been on the books since 1986 but really stepped up to the plate now. Yet as the ‘boys of 86’ moved on, we steadily became just like any other second tier team, signing lower league potentiates and reasonably talented journeymen and settling back into our natural status as a team slightly too big for Division Two yet not good enough for the top table.
It hasn’t escaped most long-memoried fans that our most recent season has carried too many shades of the events leading up to liquidation for our liking. Selling players, dwindling attendances and a Board that has preferred to say nothing rather than come clean about the financial picture, it was a significantly similar situation, only resolved late in the day, once our Championship status was secured and Steve Gibson sparked the effort to sell season tickets by reassuring us that our club isn’t about to lapse into administration. Yet there’s a sense we’ve come full circle since those days, or perhaps we’ve grown up after the awkward teenage years when Gibson’s money engineered a land-grab for honours that didn’t quite produce the years of uninterrupted glory it was supposed to, but ended in the realisation that it’s far better and more honourable to do these things through wise management and astute tactics rather than seven-figure sums. Equally importantly, our renaissance was kicked into action by the return of Mowbray, this time as team manager. In Newcastle, they’d have called this ‘the Second Coming’ and talked him up as a Messiah. On Teesside, we know better than that, but if Mogga can revive the spirit of 1986 in his charges, many of whom once again are locally produced kids, then we could be in for an exciting future