So Sunderland are effectively two defeats from relegation, one if Hull were to win just one more game and goal differences remained much as now. Middlesbrough are not much better off. In other words, both clubs are doomed to the Championship with only the mathematics left to complete. Dogs in this predicament are usually put out of their misery, but we have to await the formalities of our demise. Catherine Wilson*, our Boro interviewee and bassist/vocalist with ‘North London’s favorite grungey-indie superdupergroup’ Paintings of Ships, has accepted the inevitable, a relegation perhaps sealed by chairman Steve Gibson’s unwise loyalty towards Aitor Karanka …
In other circumstances, this might have seemed a game on which survival could hinge. We look doomed; after the Arsenal (and Bournemouth) results, would you say Boro are, too?
Catherine: Sadly, yes. We had a fairly positive start but it has been mostly doom and gloom since Christmas. The players may still be peddling positive lines and saying that our luck will turn but surely, behind the scenes, the club are already planning for next season in the Championship. It may not be the most popular opinion but this time around I am glad that Newcastle are going up – we definitely need some north-east representation in the top flight. Living in London for as long as I have has really highlighted that many north-easterners’ feelings that London barely recognises the area’s existence, at least politically – is true.
What has been the root cause of Boro’s problems – failings of management, owner, individual players?
For me, it’s that we have relied far too much on our defence and have been so unbalanced in terms of what we can do on the pitch. Our defending is great, yes – but when we’re in possession of the ball we’re laboured, lacking in ideas and nine times out of 10 have just one man in the box to try to make things happen. I think it would be fair to say that the club let Aitor Karanka stay for a couple of months too long. Chairman Steve Gibson is renowned for his loyalty and I’m sure he had every faith that Karanka could turn things around but we didn’t make any key buys in January and we have suffered for that. Victor Valdes was the best signing for me – bringing him in on loan was a shrewd move and he has done very well for us (the same could be said for Calum Chambers too), but apart from that we have been relying heavily on the players who got us promoted to the Championship and the quality just isn’t quite there. It’s a real shame that we’ve barely given it a go this season.
If not covered above, has Negredo been a lone star or has he, too, failed to do enough. And what about Downing, a player I remember fondly from his loan period with Sunderland?
Negredo seems to have picked himself up a bit of late and has bagged a few goals, but I think it’s been a very tough ask of him this year. The Boro fans have pinned their hopes on him to do everything but in reality he’s had little support and supply from the players behind him, who are all very defensive-minded. Downing has struggled similarly this season – it’s no secret that he didn’t get on with Aitor Karanka and has played out of position for much of the season. Downing is probably the most experienced Premier League player that we have, but he has been in the shade for much of the year and has mostly been dragged into a supporting defensive effort.
If you drop, will you bounce back straight away or struggle? And if somehow you pull off a great escape, what needs to be done to ensure no similar battle next season?
I will not be looking forward to next season if we do indeed drop. The quality in the Championship is better than it has ever been and there are some great managers coming in from abroad – like Aitor Karanka did with us – just look at what David Wagner has done at Huddersfield this year. Jaap Stam has been doing some fabulous stuff at Reading too. I have no idea who we may bring in as our next permanent manager – will Steve Gibson take a punt on a young hopeful like he did with Karanka, or go for a solid name who has experience in getting teams out of the Championship?
As I mentioned earlier, we’ve been so bottom-heavy this season – it’s been like trying to get the pinball up to the top of the machine – no matter how good your defenders are, you can’t pin everything on them. If we can hang onto key players such as Ben Gibson and Adam Clayton but find some real attacking quality, we can begin from there. But I think a lot of the Spanish and Uruguayan contingent may leave in the summer, so we’ve got a lot of shopping to do.
What about us – you beat us comfortably at the Stadium of Light and we’ve never really got started apart from one brief period before Christmas. Did you see it coming or did you think Moyes had enough about him to keep us safe?
I remember that game well, as I almost fell off my chair when Cristhian Stuani scored that wonder goal! We were all still full of optimism then, and that game gave us the impression that we might have a go in this league and end up finishing well above the drop zone. I worried for Sunderland almost from the get go, particularly when Moyes dropped those cloying comments back in August about a relegation battle being a dead cert. It’s ok to be honest about where you are and what you can achieve, but what is football without a little bit of hoping and dreaming?
How do you see the NE rivalries – love to see all three in the top flight, dislike SAFC more than NUFC or too busy worrying about Boro to care much about either?
Over the past few years, Boro fans have flipped their attentions back to Leeds and the old “Yorkshire derby” given our recent lingering in the Championship. I try to distance myself from fierce rivalries as you see some fans fall down the rabbithole with it and it becomes about tribes and not sport anymore. Apart from a bit of light ribbing, I think there’s nothing better than all three teams being in the Premier League – but we may have to wait a while to see that happen again.
My sister has spent all her adult life and brought up her family in Middlesbrough. I think my nephews will take relegation hard but is there some crumb of comfort they should all be taking from the experience?
This may sound odd, but one of my favourite things about supporting the Boro is that it’s never dull. I think that could be said for all three of the north east teams. Specifically looking back to the 1990s, the glamour of the all-new Premier League, TV money and big-name international players heading to the UK – it was a great time to be a football fan.
It’s slightly different now, probably because I’m older, but looking back on what we’ve gone through in my time as a fan – cup finals, playoff finals, European cup finals, finishing 6th in the Premier League and a fair few relegations – I wouldn’t change it for the world. Far better than finishing a solid 12th in the PL every year and getting dumped out of the cups in the third round!
One thing I will say is that previous relegations have been a little more “exciting” – who can forget us going down when we had the likes of Juninho, Ravanelli and Emerson banging in numerous great goals. This year has felt more like a damp squib – nothing much at all to shout about, we’ve just slowly limped our way out of contention. You can’t have it your way all of the time, unless you support one of the real big-money clubs, and where’s the fun in that?
What have been your highs and lows of following Boro?
The ultimate low, maybe as it’s still fresh in my mind, is watching us lose the playoff final at Wembley in 2015. After such a slog of a season, we never really turned up to play Norwich and lost 2-0. I still haven’t been able to bring myself to read the programme that I bought on the day. There were plenty of other breathtaking moments in that season, namely losing 4-3 in a last-minute shocker at Fulham as we sent our goalkeeper up for a corner at 3-3 before swiftly conceding.
But my all-time high, and it’s still classed as the best night of my life bar none, is watching us come back from 3-0 down on aggregate to win 4-3, back in 2006, in our classic semi-final against Steaua Bucharest. Pure magic.
And the best players you’ve seen – or maybe wish you’d be old enough to have seen – in action?
I think football fans will always remember the players that they loved when they were kids, and for me it has to be Juninho. When he signed for Boro, the world turned to look and it really felt like we’d arrived. There was samba fever – everyone had a green and white scarf and there was a real sense of optimism about the place. Plus he could play a bit, couldn’t he? My favourite goal of all-time is still Juninho’s diving header against Chelsea in 1997 – a great effort for a 5’5″ lad!
Who should have been allowed nowhere near Ayresome Park or the Riverside?
I don’t have too many negative feeling towards people connected with Boro – everyone has played their part in the story, be it good or bad. I think the time that I felt most frustrated was when Gordon Strachan was managing the club. I went to one home game where we beat Sheffield United 1-0 but I didn’t really enjoy a moment of it – the football was really dire and we just had a load of big, lumbering players. Even Strachan himself gave up and tore up his contract in Steve Gibson’s office when he realised it just wasn’t working.
Come to that, do you miss the old place?
Despite the bags under my eyes, I’m too young to really know! I got into football at the age of eight (not sure how, as it’s not really a big passion in my family) with the arrival or Juninho and the move to the Riverside Stadium, so all of my memories stem from there, really. I think all football fans will remember the first time that they went into their team’s stadium and saw the pitch – I couldn’t believe how loud it was in there, too! It was love at first sight.
Any further thoughts about Sunderland – the club, the fans, the city?
I still haven’t visited the Stadium of Light and don’t know any Sunderland fans, oddly! But I’m a massive fan of one of your favourite daughters, Lauren Laverne. I met her once and she’s salt of the earth – when I told her I was from the north east too, she said “let’s throw our coats on the floor and drink some pints!”.
Name the three teams that will drop, and – hardly important – the top four in order.
Sunderland, Boro and Swansea, I think. Hull have enough about them (and a better run-in than Swansea) to be able to pull away from the pack. But if Boro beat Bournemouth this weekend then that could put a cat among the pigeons, so come back to me!
Chelsea, Tottenham, Man City and Man United are my top four. At the start of the season I thought this year would be Man City’s but Chelsea have been far and away the top team the whole time. Liverpool have been a bit hit and miss this season and it’s going to let them down at the end of it. Tottenham have been really impressive, Man United have been typically stubborn under Jose… and the less said about Arsenal, the better!
Have you enjoyed writing about Boro for ESPN? New challenge or something you’ve been able, as someone experienced on the media, to take in your stride?
It’s been a great experience for me. It never feels like work when it’s something you love so passionately. I started out in writing but do less and less of it in my day job now, so it’s really nice to get stuck into something a bit more .
Tell us about your musical exploits – how you got involved, what the band plays, what it’s achieved etc.
I’ve played bass guitar since I was 15 and have been in bands ever since then. When I moved to London it was one of the first things I wanted to do to set myself up here and I’ve made so many great friends through it, not least the two guys in the band with me. We’ve been going for eight years now and have recorded two albums. We know we won’t be giving our day jobs up anytime soon but it’s just a great hobby to us, lots of good fun and we enjoy playing live whenever we can. It’s probably not for everyone – I’d say it’s similar to a lot of late 80s indie bands like The Pixies, REM and so on.
Back to the distressing subject of football: is diving, along with other forms of cheating, so prevalent we may as well give up and just write them all up in the coaching manual? Or still worth stamping out?
I may be in the minority but I do think that the quality of refereeing has soared in recent years – maybe because they are more aware that their performance is being watched just as keenly as that of all of the players. I’m not sure about diving, but I’m definitely against the introduction of video technology. We don’t want to ruin football by stopping it being a free-flowing sport. I know it’s the worst thing in the world when an incorrect decision goes against your team but you have to believe that it will happen just the same to everyone else too, in the end!
And one step the authorities or your club should take to improve the lot of ordinary fans?
The biggest change we’ve seen lately is the Twenty’s Plenty campaign by the FSF which is so good. Away games are now charged at a maximum of £30 which is certainly a step down the right track. I get uncomfortable when I see fans asking for money back when a team hasn’t performed well – unfortunately there’s no quality guarantee with any game you go to! I’d love to see the English leagues modelled on Germany where football is a much more affordable and accessible event for all types of fans. Some clubs in our lower leagues are much better at this and have great packages for younger fans. It makes sense really as they are the ones who’ll be paying the players’ wages in 10 or 20 years’ time.
Will you be at our game? What will be the score?
Unfortunately I can’t be at the game as I live in London and it’s now a midweek fixture. I will definitely be listening to the local commentary – I love to do that when I can’t go as it gives me a real taste of home.
* Catherine Wilson on herself: a Boro exile in London, tweets at @basslady, and describes herself enigmatically at Twitter as ‘Top doyle, @paintings_ships bassist, ITV marketing manager, @ESPNFC Middlesbrough blogger, cat mammy, 27/92′
Interview: Colin Randall