In the second of our Sunderland v Middlesbrough “Who are You?”s – it happens that way sometimes – we talk to Harry Pearson, Guardian sports columnist and author of books that include the wonderful North-eastern footballing odyssey, The Far Corner. That’s the one to grab if you read nothing else about the game. Harry is also a slightly guilty Boro fan, too guilty about the long gaps between his attendances to muscle in on the limited ticket supply …
Salut! Sunderland: so are we on the brink of a Boro revival or are they not quite yet good enough to gain promotion – unless they can sneak in via the playoffs – or mount a good cup run?
Harry Pearson: I think they are probably good enough to get into the playoffs because the other teams around them are not that great. Whether they went up or not is a different matter and if they did, they would really struggle. There is clearly a lack of resources. It’s strange to think that five or six years ago we were at the UEFA cup final with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Mark Viduka in the team.
Both sets of supporters could perhaps be divided into three categories: 1) indifferent to one another 2) healthy rivalry but happy to see any North-eastern club do well and 3) holding deep and in some cases violent animosity towards the other lot. Where do you fit?
Well, obviously the second. I grew up on Teesside but have lived in Hexham for 20 years, have friends who support Newcastle and a neighbour who supports Sunderland and I’ve watched all the clubs a lot and feel some affection for them even if sometimes they get up to the sort of shenanigans we’ve seen at Newcastle. Generally, I like them all to do well. It’s good for the North East.
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What is your assessment of how Boro fell from being on the brink of establishing themselves in the Premier, capable of getting to cup finals and attracting serious star talent, to the struggle to seem promotable from the Championship?
It’s very hard to work out. Obviously, it was financial but how that happened I am not sure. Steve Gibson has put a lot of his money into the club but it is now a question of whether he can any longer do so, and as sole owner he doesn’t have to say very much and chooses not to. As a consequence of the decline, of course, crowds have gone down to make things worse. For a time when things were buzzing in the 1990, you could hardly see a game without a season ticket whereas now you could walk up at any time and get in.
What are your own highs and lows of supporting Boro?
Well a real low was 1986 when the club was close to folding. I was living in London and hadn’t seen them for ages. But I’m sure it was a watershed moment for a lot of fans had come earlier, in 1978, when we got to the FA Cup quarter-finals and were knocked out by Leyton Orient, only drawing at home and losing the replay. To think we had squandered such a good chance to be in the semis was for many the last straw. A lot just couldn’t take any more and the decline set in. But when the club was threatened, and the receivers were called in the and gates locked, people realised they didn’t want this taken away from them and went back. After the Steve Gibson rescue, they won successive promotions in a great spell under Bruce Rioch. And then in the 1990 we were able to attract players of the quality of Juninho, who amazingly had three spells playing for us. Impossible as it may sound to some, he loved Teesside and playing for Boro and this was a man who went on to win the World Cup with Brazil.
Who are the finest players you have seen in the club’s colours, or wish you’d seen, and who should have been allowed nowhere near them?
John Hickton was every small boy’s idol when I first went in 1967. He seemed to play the game as we all did or tried to do. John O’Rourke was another hero; he scored a hat trick in the first Boro game I ever saw. Little Juninho must be the greatest Boro player I’ve seen, and so bighearted. I remember him trying to have a go back after being fouled by Julian Dicks of West Ham and Dicks ended up just laughing at his efforts and patting him on the head. Worst? I never mind people not being very good as long as they make an effort. But it’s different when people come to Boro just out of the love of money, like Branco and Kris Boyd, and don’t seem even to be trying.
How did writing The Far Corner, traipsing around the minor leagues as well as attending games at rival NE grounds, affect your own outlook on football?
In a way I still feel today. I didn’t realise when I was writing the book that football was about to change forever. The way we had watched football – from the Holgate, the Fulwell, the Gallowgate end – was coming to an end. What I find mow is that when I get fed up with the Premier, which I do a lot, I go to watch someone like Blyth Spartans to rekindle my interest. Of course the standard of top-level football these days is very high but there’s something antiseptic about it. I remember taking a German friend, a professor who has lived in the North East for years, to watch Blyth versus Workington (he’d taken me to see a big match at Bremen in the Bundesliga). The tackling was so hard I recall him saying at one point: “That man will never walk again.” But the man in question just bounced back up and got on with it. These are the real heroes, not those on £200,000 a week. I also remember someone near us at that game saying: “Are you from Germany?” When he said he was, the supporter asked: “Oh, did you come over specially for the game?”
The Boro player Jonathan Franks, who is cup-tied, tweeted that he was “gunna be in the crowd with the die hards at sunderland! Get up their! With the lads comon! I hate sunderland! #scum”. Harmless if illiterate banter or a disturbing reminder that neanderthal ways have not been driven out of the game?
That’s sad in a way and I think it is something quite new, this kind of hatred. I’m sure people weren’t always like that; I used to go with my granddad, a real tough working class Boro guy (my dad was a rugby
man) and I simply cannot believe he would ever have thought of fighting someone over football. I read something in When Saturday Comes about Portsmouth winning the FA Cup before the war and parading it in Southampton as well as Portsmouth. You’d never see that now. It’s something that has crept into the game. I’m not saying there was nothing at all but that there wasn’t anything like the intensity of hatred. It’s sad but inevitable that Franks, a local player who has grown up among Boro fans, would feel the way he does.
And what did you make of the SAFC decision, citing safety concerns, to limit Boro to 3,000 ticklers?
I fail to see the need. Whether it is 1,000, 2,000 or many more than 3,000 the same security concerns apply. If safety is really at stake, I suppose you cannot really object after the tragedies that have happened but I remember times when there were 60,000+ at Roker Park, a ground that always seemed full to me with 21,000 in it.
Who will win the FA Cup this season and what do you think will be the top four, in order?
Don’t know. Maybe Sunderland might have a chance. I like to see teams trying to win it and hate this business if resting the best players. If they don’t go for the cups, what are teams like Boro or even Sunderland and Newcastle going to win? I agree with Roy Keane’s remark that if you don’t want to win a game, why bother turning up? I kind of hate the Man City thing, all the top players they can buy at will, but don’t really know quite why I should since we had the likes of Juninho and Ravanelli and couldn’t have brought them to the club if there wasn’t money being put into it. I think it will be City, United, then maybe Spurs and Chelsea.
If not already dealt with, where will Boro finish?
They could reach the playoffs as I said. But I think a lot of our fans don’t really want to go up. People of my age and younger grew up watching Boro playing at the top end of the second division and that’s what Boro essentially are, a top-half Championship team maybe too good for there but not quite good enough for the Premier.
What is your honest view of SAFC – the club, its supporters, and in particular the dismissal of Steve Bruce? What will Martin O’Neill achieve for us?
I felt Bruce seemed a very nice man but that Sunderland weren’t going anywhere with him. When Newcastle are doing well, that adds to the pressure. It happened with Peter Reid, too. Martin O’Neill is a really good manager. But both Sunderland and Newcastle should be capable to doing something that matches the level of support they have. They’ll never have the financial resources of Man City or United but should feel able to make a goof it for the FA Cup instead of just hoping for an eighth top finish and maybe get into the Europa League and get some European money.
This was the Eduardo Question (his spectacular dive vs Celtic), then became the Walcott Question (in honour of his public admission, with apologies, that he’d divided, and next the Barton Question and now the Osman Question. So we’ve covered diving, feigning injury and claiming a penalty (Osman) after falling over your own feet. What form of cheating most annoys you and what would you do about it?
We should follow Rugby Union and allow citing. Not during a game but to allow action to be taken afterwards.I’d also like to do something about managers coming on the television and blaming every defeat on a bad referee. We should either take it as read that is what they will say, and not broadcast it, or we should just laugh at them.
Among many players and managers who have been associated with both clubs, Brian Clough, George Hardwick, Stan Anderson, Johnny Crossan and, of course, Alf Common – from before our time – perhaps stand out. Do any of those names, or others, inspire special thoughts?
I do recall when Jim Baxter went to Sunderland, they had to take his cousin George Kinnell, too. When Baxter moved on the Nottingham Forest, they didn’t want Kinnell and he came to us and, reportedly, was dreadful, so terrible that the Boro chant was: “We paid 50,000 for Kinnell … foo-Kinn-ell!” (the story is told with a variety of fees from £10,000 upwards – ed).
Will you be at the Stadium of Light for this game? What will be the score?
I won’t be there. I’ve always avoided the big match only thing; I used to hate those people who’d only turn up for the really big games that really regular couldn’t get tickets for. My recent record has been very poor; it has been 20 games a season but is now only two or so.
Interview: Colin Randall
Interview: Colin Randall