The Hell that is supporting Middlesbrough
I had a number of appropriate topics to cover in my first submission for these here pages, far more suitable than what I am about to bring forth. As it is, there’s really only one thing on my mind, which is the utter hell that comes with being a supporter of Middlesbrough Football Club. I’ll therefore ask you to indulge me as I embark on something of a rant for several hundred words. If you like, it’s one of those ‘get it off your chest’ moments. I’ll get over it, or maybe I won’t.
The trouble with being a Boro fan is that I know there are many people worse off than me. My team’s troubles pale into insignificance compared to those of Portsmouth, a club in such dire straits that surely certain ex-owners deserve a visit from a revenge obsessed Paddy Considine. But supporting Boro is hell. It’s got to be. I don’t expect the sort of surreal levels of success as enjoyed by those lucky enough to follow Manchester United, especially those who remember the years when league titles were an impossible aim, yet surely it ought to be better than this.
At the moment, there seems to be little hope. Crowds are dropping to such a low that the word itself has stopped describing current reality. ‘Crowd’ suggests a thronged mass. What we have is a sorry trickle of bystanders, the die-hards, the masochistic and a few daytrippers who would no doubt renew their National Trust memberships following an afternoon’s entertainment at the Riverside. I thought times were hard when we dipped to 20,000, which is still close to 60% capacity, but the numbers continue to go down. Last season was the first in which the Riverside was half-full (or half empty, depending on your point of view), and if the trend continues we’ll soon be struggling to drag more than ten thousand warm bodies into the ground.
You can’t blame the people. Boro appear to be going backwards, whatever the rhetoric from the club overlords and the promise of spending several million during the transfer window. Recruiting the likes of Kris Boyd and Kevin Thomson over the summer made us pre-season favourites, which kind of highlighted the sloppy lack of research that goes into punditry below Premiership level. Not that there’s anything wrong with these players, more the fact they were signed to plug yawning gaps in the side. The revealing statistic is our net spend since the January 2010 transfer window. Once the fees for Adam Johnson and Brad Jones are accounted for, it turns out Strachan has actually lavished £900k-£1m in real money, whilst bringing ten fresh faces into the side. Not a bad way to wheel and deal, though it highlights the reduced fortunes we’ve been working with for some years.
Since the ‘glory days’ of Steve McClaren (a period that yielded one League Cup and a UEFA Cup final), the club has been in full retreat from the high fees involved in keeping the likes of Viduka, Hasselbaink, Zenden and Mendieta on the books. They’ve had to, arguing that maintaining a running debt of more than a hundred million is patently unrealistic and can only lead to one end. In other words, we’ve done everything in our power to avoid ‘doing a Leeds’ and effectively going bust, or perhaps we see Pompey as a more recent instance of a club that flew close to the sun and pulled an Icarus.
When McClaren went off to become the gurning face of Club England, Boro had an opportunity to recruit someone who would thrive in the new belt-tightened era. We could have got anyone, but wound up with Gareth Southgate, football’s nice guy who was ultimately called as out of his depth. It isn’t all Gareth’s fault. He kept us up for two seasons amidst an environment of behind the scenes debt reduction. Yet as star players were sold and replaced with ‘Gareth’s Guys’ it became ever clearer that what he wanted to produce on Teesside and what was going to happen belonged in different galaxies. Worst of all were his signings, the odd statement of intent like Afonso Alves who turned out to be a faint-hearted pup, or Mido, as odious as he was talented, or the hopelessly lightweight Marvin Emnes, or Digard, or Aliadiere, etc. Gareth’s downfall was that he tried to fashion Boro into a kind of mini Arsenal, emulating Arsene’s policy of buying young and crafting a crack unit over time. It seemed the perfect way of doing it on the cheap. Only two problems with this (i) Southgate was no Wenger (ii) In Boro’s relegation year Arsenal too were struggling, but when it mattered in January they signed Andrey Arshavin and reignited their season. Gareth couldn’t afford new players and sank with his ship.
The club was right to sack Southgate, though in an error of timing left the deed until the new season had begun and as a result looked desperate, and disloyal to one of its own. Had Steve Gibson wielded the sacking finger immediately after relegation, nobody would have blamed him yet it was to the owner’s credit that he gave Gareth a chance to put things right, an opportunity he ultimately wasn’t up to. I admit that at the time I wanted us to go after Nigel Pearson, but instead we got Strachan, who had bags of experience and was – I suspect crucially – available. Not a bad choice given his fine record with other clubs, though there was always a feeling that Gordon had been left behind a little tactically, especially once he’d left for Scotland. An adherence to 4-4-2 and preparedness to plunder his home country for players has done little to change anyone’s mind in this regard.
Under his aegis, Boro have diminished. Unremarkable in the second half of 2009/10 and dodgy at the start of this term, it gets harder to believe in the manager, particularly now he has transformed the side into his own within a breathless nine months’ transfer activity. Some of his signings look great. Others less so, but more worrying has been the effort to strengthen the spine of the side whilst leaving the flanks to fend for themselves. This has led to far too many instances of players ‘filling in’ on either wing or at full-back. The nadir perhaps came when Barry Robson started at left-back against QPR just after two players who were naturals in this role – Taylor and Grounds – were allowed to leave on loan. I think there are few who would argue against the pair going in terms of pure merit, and indeed Strachan has been unlucky that the player he signed for this position – Matt Kilgallon – has all the physical toughness of Darren Anderton sailing through a sea storm after enjoying a vindaloo. But if you have a dearth of players to cover certain positions, don’t lose those who are on the books, however much they serve as squad fodder most of the time. Square pegging of people who are best served elsewhere ensues, and the results are rarely pretty.
Then there’s his rigid worship of the flattest of 4-4-2 formations, which possibly worked in Scotland when he was in charge of the country’s best resourced side. Here, his team is exposed, often and with embarassing ease. Visitors to the Riverside have it especially easy. They line up with the classic philosophy of massing behind the ball and counter attacking with pace, something that beats us again and again yet it’s apparently accepted that this is okay because our approach never changes. As fans, we feel fear whenever the opposition bring someone who’s really quick – the opportunities for a field day against our flat-footed defence are always there. We entertain Reading at the weekend. The prospect of Jimmy Kebe lining up against whoever draws the short staw and plays at left-back has me considering watching the match through gaps between my fingers. In attack, we’re predictable, limp and stoppable because all defenders really have to do is mark Boyd and Scott McDonald. The space between midfield and our forwards often turns into a chasm, unbridgeable and leaving Boyd – who shows all the signs of being a lazy toerag but who will happily score when fed – isolated.
Most frustrating of all are the glimpses of a happier future, instances when Gordon becomes really short of personnel and changes the formation to a 4-5-1. We saw this in our cup win over Chesterfield, when McDonald and the youngster Luke Williams played attacking midfield support to Leroy Lita, flooded the middle of the park and advanced with greater presence. Sadly, this formation was chosen out of desperation. Despite it working, we soon reverted to our tried and tested tactics and won one more game (before overcoming Burnley in added time this week).
The answer to all this seems simple enough, but anyone with a passing knowledge of what we’re about will know that this is now Gordon’s team and our fortunes are instrinsically linked with his abilities. Suffering another managerial change would no doubt result in further tinkering with a freshly assembled and still unsettled squad, whereas it’s hoped that at some point this lot will click into place. In fairness to the manager, he’s had the kind of luck with injuries that suggest he’s made some Faustian pact in the past and the reaper’s come to claim, which has led to a different eleven for each game that is more to do with rotating fit bodies than managerial fiddling.
But it isn’t working. Despite the money spent, the ‘star’ signings, the poisoned chalice of being pre-season favourites and everything else, the campaign is descending into familiar levels of shite that Boro fans are quite used to by now. Supporting this club is less a pleasure than a chore. I wish I followed a side that made it seem a bit easier, perhaps one that knows its place and is capable of producing pleasant surprises than wet farts of performances. I envy Reading. They rarely tie their lot to multi-million pound signings, produce from within the ranks, play fluid football and give the impression of largely ‘getting’ what it’s all about. To me, they’re at ease with what they can achieve as opposed to making hollow promises and statements of intent that wind up ringing false and aggravating the fans. Perhaps I’m wrong about the situation in Berkshire, but it seems to me they experience few of the crises that we suffer, neither have they endured the loss of half their paying support through sheer disillusionment.
Anyway, that’s it. Rant over. For now, at any rate. I’m sure those who possess enough charity to reply to this will have sufficient grounds for a ‘You think you have it bad’ comment, and you’ll no doubt have good reasons for posting it too. Many Boro fans I talk to feel we’ve been spoiled for so long by Gibson’s largesse and the free spending of the Robson-McClaren years that we simply can’t cope with the leaner period we’re currently experiencing. Maybe there’s something in that, though I never felt that comfortable with the millions lavished on footballers who could have provided the mugshot for an encyclopaedia definition of ‘mercenary,’ and would much prefer a side that’s smaller in outlook but is managed by someone who has that rare mix of vision and competence. For Middlesbrough, such a blend seems like impossible alchemy. We don’t look like changing the situation any time soon either.