Who are You? may be slowly turning into a family affair. After Wrinkly Pete roped in his Bristol City-supporting nephew, Monsieur Salut does the same with the Boro-supporting part of the Randall clan (my sister has lived in Middlesbrough almost all her adult life). Andy Falconer* grew up close to Ayresome Park. He is bang up to date with comments on Simon Grayson’s saacking – risky for Sunderland, he believes – and expresses a liking for McGeady, Watmore and Catts while naturally thinking no Sunderland player could truly enhance the Boro squad. He sees a bitter scrap at the bottom for us, promotion via the playoffs for his lot …
Salut! Sunderland: A lot of people expected Boro to have a Newcastle-style Championship season, vying with Leeds maybe Wolves and Fulham for an automatic promotion slot, What has gone wrong?
Andy Falconer: We’re the team everyone wants to beat, and at the moment that’s what’s happening. Last year was deeply disillusioning. That was compounded with the hype over how good we could have been, to make for a very nervy adjustment to life in the Championship. It’s a profound weight to carry into a new season – particularly in front of expectant home fans. Great players are misfiring and the intensity of our performances bear the scars of an awfully drab Premier League campaign.
Are you surprised at how badly Sunderland have done so far and do you see any way out of it for the club?
Not really. In a similar way to Boro you’ve had a season to forget. The psychological impact of such a drawn-out collapse can’t be underestimated. You were asset stripping from Christmas 2016, then had to rebuild over summer. It’s a cliché for a reason – this is an incredibly tough league to compete in. This means we both need some opportunity to rebuild confidence. A fighting spirit can start to achieve that. It’ll win over the fans who come and hand over their hard-earned money.
Guess the score – Boro fans welcome to enter at this link
Steve Gibson still seems to command respect among the Boro faithful. Is he still the right man to guide the club back to the Premier League and is Gary Monk the right man for the manager’s job?
In Gibson we trust! I still think Monk is the right man to lead our resurgence. He seems calm and methodical, which is an attribute hugely influential in turning around a club coming out of such a difficult year on and off the pitch. That’s how you build something meaningful that will last. It’s also an attribute that jars loads with the fickle and capricious nature of the modern game. Gibson is one of the few chairmen able to allow the bigger picture to play-out. Sometimes our managers have had too much time; Gibson seems to have learned from those situations. But I find it refreshing and encouraging that Monk is unlikely to be binned after such a short time to develop his strategy.
Boro are a little light on serious honours, one League Cup final win and a few runners-up places including the Uefa Cup in 2006. Realistically, is midtable inthe top flight about as high as clubs like ours can aim?
We love the drama of the game, don’t we. The theatre and spectacle that allows any team to have a run at a trophy or a place in Europe. It’s the healthy illusion that we can strive for glory, even short-lived. In places like Boro and Sunderland that can be heavily intertwined with our wider collective identity and area pride. The reality of football in 2017 is that post-industrial, footy-mad towns are largely marginal to the billions rolling around big-city teams. But then, that’s not going to stop us. The fact we got to the 2006 UEFA Cup final after two strong seasons in the Prem adds a nice romantic reminder. As does, of course, Leicester’s title win.
That reminder always needs tempering with some realism. By 2009 we deserved, arguably needed relegation to bring us back down to earth. I’d like to think that a sustainable development for either of our clubs could yield something more adventurous than mid-table.
Your current squad: should Traore and Bamford be giving you more, how are Downing and Leadbitter doing and where are your key strengths and weaknesses?
Hanging on to Gibson may prove to be important by May. Leadbitter is quickly becoming a rock in our team again. He provides grit – a spark to put fire in some bellies. We’ve struggled to find an effective combination in the starting line-up so far this year. Once that balance clicks I think we’ll get the best out of a host of players.
We’re a very good team on paper, but lack the fight many teams are bringing to us. That ultimately reflects the need to overcome the ghosts of last season, and shows how vital confidence can be. Traore goes from the sublime to the ridiculous within each game. If he can find his role in a cohesive and confident team he’ll terrorise defences, which will also illuminate the disruptive potential of Assombalonga. Downing perhaps needed to accept a more humbling realisation of his place in this squad. We’re starting to show some real strength around a core and I’m happy with the glimmers we saw in the Reading game.
Is there anyone in Sunderland’s squad you’d like to see in Boro colours?
McGeady has his moments. I’m keeping an eye out for Watmore. He was injured just before Sunderland’s free-fall last year. His return could be immensely symbolic and I like his energy. In honesty though, I think our squad is mint. Or it will be once we find a way to deal with the nerves and expectation.
Cattermole was the type of gritty player I loved watching. That tenacity could cost him, but in general that’s a quality I think we need.
What have been your own highlights as a Boro supporter?
My first game at Ayresome Park. I’m morally obliged to say Boro vs Steaua. Surreal scenes. Just sublime! We qualified that year after Schwarzer saved a final game, 95th minute penalty by Robbie Fowler – a goal that would have sent Man City above us in the league. That was a special moment. So was our League Cup win in 2004. I’m 34, so our cup-runs in the 90s were memorable and formative. Ravanelli scoring at Wembley. Marco Branca’s debut double against you. Then there’s the great feeling of an away trip with a load of mates.
And the low points?
Capitulating last year, and in 2009. ?I can also remember a couple games before our fan group (The Red Faction) made an impact. Home atmospheres could get so deflating.
Which players have given you most pleasure and, if not included in your choice, what are your memories of Julio? From the club’s history, who do you wish you were old enough to have seen?
It has to be Juninho at the top of the pile. Other players had their moments in the spotlight, but the Little Fella defined a lot of my best Boro experiences. ?I would have liked to have seen more of Gary Pallister at his peak. ?Haha, I loved Julio! It took a little while to accept us signing a Mackem, but he was a tidy player.
Underrated in his time with us. Let’s all go on pilgrimage to South Shields!
And the duds – who should have been allowed nowhere near Ayresome/Riverside?
We brought in some incredible names in the 90s. The names didn’t always live up to the myth. Alves cost us a fortune and looked like a complete gamble. Strachan wasn’t a well timed appointment – for him and us. And he brought half of Scotland with him. It could have worked out, but didn’t.
What are your further thoughts on Sunderland – the club, the fans, the city, Catts if not already mentioned, Simon Grayson?
I love Sunderland, really. Our region shares a lot. Passion, local pride, similar economic instability, vibrant & independent culture brimming under the surface. With that identity as a city you’ll always have potential to do well as a club.
The more time goes on the more I relish all three big NE clubs thriving and competing in the Premier League. And that can happen again.
?The timing is interesting – with Grayson having just been sacked as I started writing. I think that’s a shame, but predictable in this climate. A decent appointment is going to be crucial for you!?
If not dealt with, how intense do you feel the Wear-Tees rivalry to be?
Growing up I think we took the rivalry too seriously. It’s likely that Boro always saw the Tees-Wear derby as more important than Sunderland fans would. Middlesbrough finds itself between a few of well established rivalries and so we’re the poor relation a lot of the time. It can get pretty intense in the moment, though. I’ve always looked forward to Boro v Sunderland and see it as one of the most important objectives in the season – for us to beat you.?
Your impressions so far of the quality of play and refereeing in the Championship?
The Championship is surely the best-quality second-tier in world football, in most respects. We know how tough it is to achieve promotion from this league. The play isn’t always pretty but clubs like Bristol City and Preston have demonstrated just how high the tide mark is.
Wolves have impressed with some real incisiveness at times. ?When it’s so easy for us to tune in to see the Premier League or Lionel Messi highlights reel it’s easy to fixate on the gap in quality that we feel. Likewise with refereeing, our expectations aren’t always fair.
Are diving and other forms of cheating as rampant at this level and what should be done?
Simulation is a smear on the game. Football is massively competitive so we know people will exploit the rules as far as they can, and will feel the need to amplify a foul with theatrics. Until diving is dealt-with seriously, at the highest levels of the game, it will remain an endemic problem. Harsher bans will discourage players and managers from the cynical diving. Video technology should make it easier to punish cheating. I’d like to see more options. If a player is fouled but simulates, award the free-kick and give a yellow card for simulation.
Hand on heart, where will our clubs finish this season?
Sacking a manager can be a volatile release. Before Grayson went I could see Sunderland gradually turning it around to a mid-table finish. I’m not sure now! It could end up being a relegation scrap.
?Monk will have the time he needs to fix things with Boro. By the end of the season we’ll be looking formidable but probably too late to win the title. It’s taken longer than anyone hoped, so a strong play-offs finish is reasonable. If that happens we’ll be going into the semi finals with everyone wanting to avoid us. Boro to be promoted via the play-offs.
Will you be at the game? What will be the score?
Yeah. It’s not ideal to play a team with a caretaker manager but I fancy us to win 2-1. If we score early you might well fall apart.
* Andy Falconer on himself: I live in Middlesbrough with my wife and two kids. By day I help community groups and charities to connect, to make a greater difference in Boro.
By night I’m a street-based youth worker on the estates close to the town centre. Hope4Boro is the network we co-ordinate that through and it gives me opportunities to see the great stuff people do to help transform their communities.
I’ve been playing footy and following the Boro since my brother dragged me to see us play Wolves at Ayresome Park. When we moved to the Riverside I got a season ticket and the the rest is tragic yet beautiful history. Since then I’ve been there through highs and lows, including all the big finals, but don’t get to go to as many games these days.
Interview: Uncle Colin