Saturday, 21 January 2012

Could We Ever Believe Again?

Boro have consistently given us reason to believe throughout my sixteen years as a supporter. The construction of a once state-of-the-art stadium, the arrival of numerous foreign stars, a successful promotion campaign, many memorable domestic cup runs, one domestic cup win and a European final appearance - we've really seen it all.

But what happens when said reason to believe is shattered? What happens when the famous figures we thought we could trust turn out to be less than trustworthy? What happens when it feels like we can no longer dare to dream?

For me, it's the moments where confidence, belief and satisfaction are so suddenly transformed into disappointment, or even betrayal, that stand out for me most.

And so, let me take you back in time through some of the most notable of these moments. In chronological order of course. Starting with:


When we look back at the 1996/97 season, we like to talk about the Brazilian magic and Fabrizio Ravanelli's goals, rather than the imbalance of the squad, Bryan Robson's tactical naïveté and our mostly porous defending. We had kept the negative aspects of our squad hidden thanks to some simply amazing all out attacking play that had seen us into the European places by the middle of September 1996. I still remember the platitudes poured on us in those days, such as "Middlesbrough are red hot and nothing, it seems, can stop them". I can even recall my much younger self humming along to Shed Seven's "Getting Better" after every Boro win that month, and there were quite a few of those. Ah, those were the days.

Until Southampton exposed our weaknesses for all to see. I was able to write off an admittedly disappointing surrender of our 100% home record to an improving Arsenal, but the winless Saints completely pummelling us 4-0 the following week really was an eye opener, and for all the wrong reasons. At the time, I had no idea how we could sink so low after hitting the peak of our powers a mere week and a half before, but really, in the end, all Southampton did was do what the teams we had beaten during September hadn't done. They closed down our foreign stars, thus draining our attack of confidence and freeing them to pick holes in our leaky defence. From that moment on, our aura of red hot invincibility, our belief that we could challenge for Europe, ceased to exist in my mind. By the time we finally plugged up the holes in our defence, it was too little, too late - even for our Premiership status.


I thought I understood Paul Merson while he was at Boro. Sure, he'd had drinking problems in the past. Sure, his very early days at Boro were a little nightmarish. But once settled, he became the outstanding player in the second tier, rarely having a bad game for us. All while regularly praising the virtues of the club. (A warning sign, perhaps?) I was completely convinced that he could lead us to even greater things back in the Premiership - even more so after he signed a deal committing himself to the club for life. All the more staggering, to me anyway, that he suddenly performed a U-Turn, began to talk us down, and became an Aston Villa player within a week. But hey, at least we made a profit from him, right? Still, the manner of his exit rankles with me to this day.


My former editor Steve Goldby once wrote, "(Steve) McClaren is not loyal to the Boro cause and is using us as a career stepping stone." Naturally, I refused to believe that during his first season, where he seemed to be laying the building blocks for a fine Boro future, talking positively of the club along the way. (Again, where have we heard that before?) It took a day, or a matter of days, for me to change my opinion almost completely. Not long after spending over £20 million of our money on new players - Maccarone, Boateng and Juninho among them - the Sunday papers reported that he was on the verge of joining our rivals, Leeds United, possibly taking Gareth Southgate with him. It was later revealed that it took an intervention from Steve Gibson to prevent this happening, meaning that McClaren was effectively forced to reaffirm his loyalty to us. From that moment on, me, and no doubt many other Boro fans, never really trusted him again. No wonder Gibson got much more applause in Cardiff.


To this day, I'm not sure why I hung around to see the lads pick up their losers' medals and watch Seville collect the trophy that we could have won. We had managed to paper over the cracks of what really was a very disappointing season in the Premiership - a 14th place finish - with two memorable cup runs and a couple of spectacular wins over the league's top two sides. Indeed, "papering over the cracks" and "timing" were everything to Steve McClaren that season. It just so happened that he was looking good at the right time - when the FA needed to appoint a new boss. Never mind that by season's end, he had left us with an ageing, disjointed, directionless side without European football for the following season - he still came out smelling like roses. Meanwhile, the damaging effects of his reign were sinking in, as I wondered how long it would be before we'd experience a European final again.


A personal one, this. After all, the first time only comes once, doesn't it? That's the bottom line. And I can still remember my first drink in the Ironopolis, buying copies of Red Square and FMTTM before walking through the underpass, and turning round to take pictures of the Transporter Bridge with my small camera before finally seeing the stadium, the old Ayresome gates and the Boro Brick Road in all their glory. I have to admit I was actually bowled over by it all - well, wouldn't you be if you'd waited for eleven years to visit the Riverside? - and I still had time to pop into the club shop and buy my first (and to date, only) Boro shirt. That we played very badly and lost 2-0 that day is irrelevant to me. What is relevant is that I've been to the Riverside twice more since - and, regardless of the result, I've been a little disappointed on both occasions. Neither visit has captured the "feel" of that first time. Because it only comes once, after all. And I'm sure you feel the same...

It's a well known fact that the Boro always tend to let you down, but surely - surely - at home, with a full crowd to roar us on, we could take full advantage of our best ever chance to win the FA Cup against a side from a lower division? I genuinely think this was the day when our faith in both the team and Gareth Southgate was shattered, as the "occasion" came across as a feeble attempt to replicate the "magic" of the Steaua match without the depth of squad or, more importantly, the goals. Ah yes, where were they? The fact that the whole nation was watching us on the BBC deepened the embarrassment.


I liked the guy. And I still do. But there's no doubt, in my mind, that Gareth Southgate was just not up to it as Boro manager, as much as we wanted him to be. It is the manner and timing of his departure that leaves such a nasty taste in the mouth. I had barely woken up the morning after that 2-0 win over Derby when I heard the words, "Southgate's been sacked". Great news for some Boro fans at the time (if only they knew who was coming next!) but it left me in a state of shock. After all, we had just won, and were near the top of the table. But that, of course, was only the beginning. An eloquent if selective exposure of Steve Gibson's actions by several writers, including Gareth's pal David Walsh of The Sunday Times, was to follow. Gordon Strachan had been approached to succeed Gareth as manager three weeks before his actual sacking, and Keith Lamb had the nerve to tell Gareth this to his face just after he was sacked. Poor manager or not, this was downright rude.

If only that was the end of it. Walsh revealed that we were crippled by a huge debt (a la Leeds!) and had been living beyond our means for years. And that all the major foreign stars - Ravanelli, Emerson, Merson, Boksic, even Juninho - had used us to make a buck. Up until now, we had had the consolation of Gibson's benevolence. But his, and Lamb's, actions, coupled with the realities of the Riverside Revolution, meant that we could never wholly trust in them again.

* * * * *

Now, can Mogga restore our reason to believe in the upcoming games? Starting with Coventry?

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