Middlesbrough vs. Chelsea : 19 March 2022.
Our FA Cup quarter final tie at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium would necessitate our first visit to Teesside in over five years. PD and I had enjoyed the last one; we stayed the Saturday night and got to witness the joys of a night out in Middlesbrough before our narrow 1-0 win on the Sunday evening in late 2016. PD liked it so much that he has been using the photo of him in the first row of the away section as his cover photo on Facebook ever since.
This time, Parky was joining us. Although I swore blind that I’d never drive up and back to Middlesbrough ever again, after doing this for a match in 2008, due to a variety of reasons that are just too dull to explain here, I was damn well doing it again.
In the build up to this game, it still felt that we were at the centre of a massive storm. However, we did not help ourselves. The club’s pathetic request for the game to be played behind closed doors drew warranted disdain from all quarters. At a time when we should have been quietly going about our business, on and off the park, this just gave others the chance to label us negatively. It was a massive PR own-goal. Sometimes the actions of those at our club defy description.
After a tough few days at work – our office was hit with COVID and sickness – at last the weekend arrived. Parky and I are away season ticket holders but PD’s presence was in doubt. Thankfully, a spare became available from a usual source and the three of us were headed to Middlesbrough. We would be part of, surely, our smallest domestic away following in decades. There were games at Luton Town in the mid-‘eighties when away fans were effectively banned, but a few Chelsea – OK more than a few – still attended via a variety of means. I am unsure how many got in.
I also remember a game at Anfield in the autumn of 1994 when The Kop was closed and I believe our official away allowance was ridiculously small. I watched that game with a Liverpool mate in the main stand that night. From memory we only had about four hundred.
Around seven hundred were due to get in at Middlesbrough. Not for the first time did I feel blessed to be able to attend.
I am a lucky man.
Smoggy Land. The Smog Monsters. The Smoggies. Ironopolis. The huge ICI plant. The ‘Boro. Pak Doo-ik of North Korea scoring against the Italians in 1966. George Camsell and Wilf Mannion. Don Revie and Brian Clough growing up mere streets away from each other. The Ironsides. The 1973/74 promotion team of Jack Charlton. The white bar on the chest of their jerseys. The players Frank Spraggon, Alan Foggon and John Craggs. An industrial wasteland in the ‘eighties. John Neal and Tony McAndrew. The locking of the Ayresome Park gates in 1986. The team of Gary Pallister, Bernie Slaven, Stuart Ripley and Tony Mowbray. The play-offs in 1988. Juninho and Ravanelli. The Wembley games. The Zenith Data, the FA Cup, the League Cup. The Riverside. Roy Chubby Brown. Their League Cup win and the Europa Cup journey under Steve McClaren. The Transporter Bridge. Bob Mortimer. Chris fucking Rea. Club Bongo. The chicken parmo.
I called for PD at eight o’clock and LP just after. A journey of exactly three-hundred miles was ahead. My fellow travellers came armed with a few tins of cider for the trip north. I thoroughly enjoyed this drive. The weather was magnificent; clear blue skies to start, hardly a cloud appeared all day, dry roads, a great feeling of freedom. We stopped for some breakfast bagels at Strensham on the M5 at 9.30am and I was soon hurtling around Birmingham on the M42. The half-way point was reached as I neared the M1 just south of Nottingham. I stopped to refuel at Woodall Services, then headed straight up the A1. The road into Middlesbrough, with the North York Moors visible past Thirsk, and then the approach into Smoggy Land.
We chatted away. But there were the inevitable periods of silence when I was left alone with my thoughts.
The very first time that I saw us play Middlesbrough was that infamous play-off game at Stamford Bridge in 1988. I have detailed that game at legth previously.
My first sighting, though, was a little nearer home.
In 1986, Bristol Rovers were turfed out of their Eastville stadium, never to return, and began playing at Twerton Park, the home of Bath City. Before I returned to college in Stoke in that September, my school friend Steve coerced me to attend a Rovers game against Middlesbrough in the then Third Division. It was a midweek match and I believe less than 4,000 attended. ‘Boro themselves were going through a very rough time, the worst in their history, and were limping along financially from one game to another. I watched from a side terrace as ‘Boro won a decent game 2-1. The one thing that I remember from that night was that Graeme Souness – himself ex-Middlesbrough – and the new Rangers manager had been spotted in the seats above. That he had travelled down from Glasgow – probably by car in those days – on a scouting mission blew my mind. He was no doubt keeping an eye on Gary Pallister.
I hated Middlesbrough in 1988. They spoiled my life, or at least that summer. While many football fans were getting all loved up on ecstasy, I was depressed, so depressed, and fearing life in Division Two. Again.
I have only ever met three Middlesbrough fans outside of match days in my entire life.
My college mate Chris is from nearby Thornaby and I shared digs with him from 1984 to 1987. A distant branch of his family – “Dickens” – sponsored the ‘Boro shirt in those tough times of 1986. Keith was a work mate in Trowbridge at the time of the 1997 and 1998 Wembley games who got undue stick from me. Then, weirdly, there was a lad called Andy from Saltburn, who I first bumped into at a youth hostel in Washington DC in 1989, only for him to come strolling into a bar in Orlando a month later. This football world is a very small world indeed.
I was parked up at around 1.15pm. Not only was my spot equidistant between pub and ground, but also free. After a couple of text messages, we met up with two Chelsea mates in “The Resolution” – which we visited in 2016 – and formed a little Chelsea enclave in a solidly home crowd. It felt like the whole town was buzzing. ‘Boro were enjoying a decent season and were undoubtedly “up for the Cup” on this sunny day. Many ‘Boro lads were in their finery; the boozer was awash with Adidas trainers, Armani jeans, Paul & Shark tops, CP sweatshirts and the ubiquitous Stone Island patch was everywhere. But despite all this, the locals were welcoming.
We chatted to Matty – a dead friendly local from Darlington, er Darlo – and a few of his mates. Pride of place went to Robbie, yet to miss a ‘Boro game in forty-two years. That meant that he was at Twerton Park in 1986. Respect.
With an hour and a half to go, we set off for the stadium. It was only a twenty-minute walk. While the others headed inside for a bevvy, I circumnavigated the stadium for the first time. Statues of Camsell and Mannion proudly stand next to those very same gates from Ayresome Park that were locked by bailiffs in 1986 with the club’s future on a precipice.
I especially wanted a photo of the blue steel of the famous Transporter Bridge over the Tees. I was able to frame this impressive structure within the circles of a couple of public art installations that resembled dream catchers.
The ‘Boro faithful were dreaming of Wembley again as they rushed past me.
The waters of the river lapped the banks as the stadium was bathed in sun ahead of me. I slowly made my way to the away turnstiles. I passed a photo of old Ayresome Park on a section of the perimeter wall with a row of seats from the old stadium in front. Sadly, I never made it to Ayresome Park, nor Roker, and friends tell me it was a fearsome place in other decades; the play-off game in 1988 especially. With hindsight, the two stadia of Sunderland and Middlesbrough – despite being the two lesser clubs of the north-east behind Newcastle United – were far more impressive than St. James’ Park.
I made my way in and soon chatted to some of the 677.
Al, Gal, Andy, Tim in the concourse.
Others inside the seats.
Waves and thumbs up to a few.
This was my fifth visit to the Riverside. It’s OK, but oh so bland. Five visits and three different sections for us away fans, being pushed east each time. Our small section was above a corner flag.
The other four games were easy wins. I hoped for one more.
Oh yeah, the game. Other matters had dominated my thoughts until then. The sun shone brightly before eventually falling behind the west stand roof. It was a warm evening on Teeside.
The PA was ridiculously excitable.
“The Chelsea team are now in the tunnel.”
“The ‘Boro team are now in the tunnel.”
Bloody hell. You need to get out more, mate.
As the teams entered, red and white shiny mosaics to my left. Lots of noise.
“Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag.”
The Chelsea team?
Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Silva – Sarr
Kovacic – Loftus-Cheek – Mount
Ziyech – Lukaku – Pulisic
There was applause for Ukraine. There was no silliness from the 677. Phew. Matty had told us all about the ‘Boro right back Isaiah Jones, who was evidently one to watch. Funnily enough, I remembered him from a Queen of the South vs. Hearts game I watched on BBC Scotland last season. Don’t ask.
So, Middlesbrough vs. Chelsea and 30,000 vs.677.
I was pleased to see ‘Boro still employing the white band on their jersey. It’s their thing.
The game began. It was warm enough for me to take off my coat and top; just a T-shirt would suffice until the second-half. I was stood next to PD and Parky. From getting out of my car at 1.15pm, I would be standing until well after the game, gone 7pm.
We began brightly. We used space well as we attacked and the mood inside the away section was positive. There were songs from the start though none immediately, for Roman Abramovich. Matty had told us that their weak link was their goalkeeper Joe Lumley and he was getting tested early on. The home team responded with a few corners.
On the quarter of an hour, the ball broke to Hakim Ziyech down our right. I saw Mason Mount itching to be found.
“There’s the pass. Mason wants” I yelled and I am positive that my voice was heard.
Ziyech pushed the ball into space perfectly. Mount advanced and spotted the fine run of Romelu Lukaku. The cross was perfect, low and fast, right on the money. Lukaku swept it in.
We were one-up early on and the 677 roared. I leant forward and shared some positive stuff with Eck.
“Perfect move that. A ball into space. A great run from Lukaku. We don’t do that enough.”
Of course Middlesbrough were guilty of leaving their defence exposed but it was so good to see us executing a classic counter-attacking move. Beautiful.
The home team did not lie down. They almost constantly attacked us down the right via that man Thomas. A few more corners, with Lukaku going all Drogba and heading away on one occasion.
There was a good election of songs emanating from the 677. We were holding our own.
On the half-an-hour mark, we watched as Mateo Kovavic broke purposefully in that urgent way of his. He spotted Mount, breaking square, and the ball was then pushed out to Ziyech. The winger came inside.
A shout from Eck.
“Hit it Hakim.”
He did. And how. The shot dipped and swerved and away from Clumsy Lumley and into the net.
Were we safe? It absolutely felt like it. Time for more celebrations and the continuation of more songs.
“Kovacic our Croatian man.
He left Madrid and he left Milan.
He signed for Frank, said fuck off Zidane.
He signed for Chelsea on a transfer ban.”
Lukaku almost made it three from close-in, but was denied after a ‘Boro defender cleared his goal bound shot off the line.
“How did that not go in?”
It had been a class first-half. Thiago Silva was calmness personified. Rudiger attacked every ball, and sometimes every defender, as if his life depended on it. Eck and I agreed that Mason hasn’t really pushed on this season in quite the way we had expected but was enjoying a fine game. The home fans were occasionally quiet and when these moments happened, we seized our chance to be heard.
It was a pleasure to see Shari and Skippy from Queensland in Australia around the half-time break.
As the second-half began, my Lacoste top was zipped up. The night was getting a little cooler now. The second period promised much but delivered little. I fancied more goals from us, but we rarely hit the free-flowing stuff of the first forty-five minutes.
To be fair to the home fans, they dug in and absolutely sang their hearts out as the second-half got going. I think we were all impressed.
For a while, they sang a song and we did our version. They were our cheerleaders. Minus the pom poms.
But there were also reminders of 1997.
“When Wise Went Up.”
“One Di Matteo.”
And then a new one.
“We’re on our way, we’re on our way.
To Paris, we’re on our way.
Seven seater, car or train.
Tommy’s gonna fly the plane.
All I know is Chelsea’s on our way.”
And then as an answer to “Pigbag.”
I remember little of the second-half apart from the banter between away fans and home fans, with the occupants of the BBC studio to our left getting a few hefty helpings too. I could hardly believe it when 677Steve in South Philly texted me to say that he couldn’t hear us on the TV broadcast.
Luke was leading a new chant :
“Chelsea’s got no money, we’re gonna win the Cup.”
Four substitutions from Tuchel.
Timo Werner for Pulisic.
N’Golo Kante for Kovacic.
Kenedy for Ziyech.
Harvey Vale for Lukaku.
Only in the last ten minutes were there audible chants for and against Roman.
Chelsea : “Roman Abramovich.”
Middlesbrough : “Fuck off Abramovich.”
Timo had a couple of late chances and as the game petered out, Mendy made his first real save of the night. The home team had been poor, but we had shown commendable spirit throughout.
The pounding that the club has received from outside of late has undoubtedly engineered a magnificent team spirit with Tuchel now a much loved, much admired and respected leader.
After a period of me struggling to warm to him, I am now resolutely a paid up member of Team Tuchel.
We are privileged to have him.
We slowly walked back to the car as the night grew colder still. The car park was grid-locked so we spent a while in a local “Pizza Hut” where we bumped into Roy – Brighton, Palace – and Margaret yet again. After almost six hours on my feet, I could relax. When I eventually set off at 9pm, the traffic was clear. While PD and Parky slept, I drove south. I was diverted on the M1 into the outer reaches of Leeds.
I refueled my car at Tamworth Services. A couple of Red Bulls got me home.
I reached my house at around 2am.
It had been another good day.
could hear you and the 676 loud and clear – great support!
Nice nice. Thanks Mate. Always makes me feel like I was there
Sent from my iPhone
Yeah, thanks pal.
“Chris fucking Rea” 🤣🤣🤣