There is a gloomy feeling of inevitability on Teesside. Boro fans are already preparing themselves for a summer of heartache. But any true football fan should be wanting Boro to stay up this season.
Last year the Teesside area voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. There was a pervasive sense that the North-East was getting the crumbs while London got to feast on the riches of globalization. Teessiders were forgotten and left out of the system.
It all has me recalling 20 years ago, when Middlesbrough embarked on the 1996-97 season, one of the most insane chapters in Premier League history. And a moment when Teesside was again let down by the establishment.
We all remember the mid-1990’s. The early Premier League had ushered a bright new era. World Cup 90 had signaled the end of the dark days of hooliganism. The Tories were on life-support and the country was emboldened by the rise of New Labor. 1996 was the year of Brit-pop and Euro 96, and the future was bright.
Steve Gibson, chairman of recently promoted Middlesbrough FC, asked a question. Why, in this era of fervent optimism, can’t a club like Middlesbrough be filling their empty trophy cabinets instead of the traditional “bigger” clubs?
Gibson, an enormously successful local business man, poured in his money and started a revolution. We beat interest from big European clubs to land Juninho from Sao Paulo. Fabrizio Ravanelli, fresh from scoring in the European Cup Final, told his agent, as joke, to tell Gibson to double his Juve wages and he’d sign for Boro. A few days later, a confused Ravanelli was standing in the carpark at the Riverside ready to sign his name. We signed Emerson, another Brazilian, who seemed a bit lazy, but had a penchant for scoring 30 yarders.
And what a glorious start. The White Feather scored a hat-trickon his debut against Liverpool. We destroyed Coventry and West Ham. We dared to dream.
But of course it all went wrong. In every revolution, there is chaos at the beginning. This was a period in football immediately before total professionalism had taken over the top flight, an era when Matt Le Tissier could have 2 McMuffin’s on a Saturday morning and still be one of the best players in the country. Manager Bryan Robson was teaching his players old United drinking games to fuel team spirit.
Results started to turn. 16 games without a win. The superstars started to complain about the amateur training facilities. Emerson literally went missing for a couple weeks. Ravanelli refused to train with his teammates, while slagging the club off to Italian newspapers. Injuries and fitness were so bad, Bryan Robson, days short of his fortieth birthday was forced to start himself in some games.
Fatally, on the 21st December, with 23 players out to injuries and illness, Robson, after receiving misguided and vague advice from the FA, made a naïve, last minute decision to cancel a game against Blackburn. There was nothing malicious in the decision, we literally only had 14-year-olds fit to play. Robson weighed it up, a decided a heavy fine and slap on the wrist from the FA would be worth it.
All we had to do was survive. Just stay up. Two epic cup runs gave the world a glimpse just how good we could be. Steve Gibson’s ambition continued to show no bounds. If we stayed up there were rumors of provisional deals done with Romario, Roberto Carlos and Paul Ince to come in the summer if we stayed up.
But the FA had different ideas. The football establishment decided that this new era of prosperity was only meant to be enjoyed by the few, the Manchester Uniteds, and Liverpools and the London clubs. Middlesbrough, rather than be encouraged for their ambition, should be punished.
“The board considers that a deduction of 3 points is right and fair,” said some self-conceited little nerd at the FA.
Middlesbrough were relegated by 2 points. The Revolution was over.
Boro bounced back in a year. Gibson continued to fund big money signings. He also built a world class training facility, and one of the best youth development in the country. But the footballing world was a more cynical place. Boro had been weighed and measured, and were told they were a mid-table team at best, capable of the occasional cup run.
The recession hit, Gibson had to balance the books. Boro fans couldn’t afford a price of the ticket, and 6 dreary years in the Championship followed. Then last year we eupohorically bounced back, while Leicester City gave us all hope.
You should want Middlesbrough to stay up, because of Steve Gibson. Steve Gibson should be celebrated across the country. A Middlesbrough born businessman, who employs local men and woman, who dared to believe he could take Middlesbrough, a footballing town, the town of Brian Clough, Don Revie, and England captain Geroge Hardwick, to the higher reaches of the footballing world. He withstood the globalist trend of allowing take-overs from Russian Oligarchs, Saudi Sheikhs, soulless American venture capitalists, or Indian based chicken producers. He saw the demise of far bigger northern clubs who had the gumption to take on the big boys.
The men and women of Teesside, rightly or wrongly, voted for Breit because we have always felt forgotten. That we are left to do things on our own. Like Steve Gibson, a man who made it his life works to make Middlesbrough, a football town, relevant. And 20 years on from those sanguine early days of Juninho and Ravanelli, we’re still dreaming.