Why on earth did we start the Salut! Sunderland series of articles by fans of the teams we play next? It demonstrably speeds the ageing process; I could swear I’m only 31, yet I feel, er, 32.
The problems occur before every other game. Half of these features, in other words, are planned to perfection (we have Mags queueing up for the Feb 1 game; sorry, Joe, you just don’t measure up to our required standard of English, and Mike needn’t come creeping around asking for a second chance.
But the rest of the time, it’s wing and prayer stuff. On the Sunday, we suddenly remember we need a witty or wise rival fan of the club we’re p[laying in just six days; we post obsequious pleas at one of that club’s fan sites, beg favours from friends, bombard celeb fans with calls or e-mails we know they’ll never return (unless they are Bob Willis) and then sit back and hope for the best. The silence on Monday and even Tuesday can be deafening. Then suddenly, we have two offers, maybe three. How can you turn someone away, especially on this occasion when your own, Boro-supporting nephew has let you down? Robert Nichols* was the first of the Boro fans to dig us out of a hole this week. But he runs the excellent Fly Me To The Moon site – as close as I’ve seen to the ideal internet fanzine – and runs a business, so has his time cut out. Boro born and bred, he still found time to offer some challenging, entertaining thoughts….
This is one of the most important Tees Wear clashes in recent times, especially for Boro.
Languishing at fourth bottom in the table we desperately need some points. News of Stewart Downing’s transfer request has rippled shock waves across Teesside.
Funnily enough it could actually galvanise us. The feeling that even though our star name is disaffected we must pull together will grow. It’s us against Sunderland, us against the world and win at all costs.
It will be a fiercely partisan atmosphere at the Riverside. Emotions will be running high. We felt aggrieved earlier in the season when a missed penalty turned victory into defeat.
Don’t expect Stewart Downing to be stepping up for a spot kick if awarded this time. But do expect to play a leading role in hunting down Sunderland and proving he is worth more than any £14 /£15 million bid.
The derby match means far more than the story of any one player and that’s the message that will come over loud and clear. But it could just add fire to our burning desire to beat Sunderland and hi-tail it away from the relegation zone.
Here’s the answers to your questions (you did ask a lot!)…
What did you make of your prospects and ours at the start of the season and how has the first half changed your mind?
I was genuinely excited going into the season. We hadn’t made many
purchases in the summer but I thought our new younger, leaner, pacier
squad might be a handful for many a defence. The only problem I
thought would be how the inexperienced team would cope if things went
against them. Well, quite a lot has happened since then and right now
it is fair to say things have not worked out as hoped. To put it very
When did you last see a Boro v SAFC match home and away?
At Stadium of Light this season the game hinged on Stewart Downing’s
penalty miss. Defeat was hard to take when we had looked to be on top
in the game up until that point. Ironic it should be Downing that
missed the spot kick as he is centre stage again this week and still
awaiting his first goal of the season.
I have seen many memorable Boro v Sunderland encounters over the years
– I recall being in the “wrong end” at Roker Park when Bosko Jankovic
back heeled it into the net. Had to try very hard not to celebrate.
Emerson enjoyed nothing better than hammering a 30 yard screamer into
the Sunderland net. There was that brilliant double goal scoring
league debut for Marco Branca and Alun Armstrong against you. Oh and
going back to Roker Park again when the Sunderland fans were chanting
“Jamie Pollock ..ugly b***d,” only for him to smuggle it home off his
arse. That silenced the home crowd.
How great would you say is the animosity between the clubs? My
Boro guest writer for the SoL game talked quite fondly about SAFC, but
loathed Newcastle. Is that common?
I think the level of rivalry and animosity is usually gauged on who we
take as being our biggest threat in the league etc out of Newcastle
and Sunderland. If we are being nearly friendly then it is most likely
because our clubs are in different divisions or different planets.
It’s fair to say that not too many people walk down Linthorpe Road
wearing a Sunderland shirt and you don’t hear too many people saying I
support all the North East clubs these days.
What did you make of each club’s signings? Who do you want to
lose/buy this month and how gutted are you by Downing’s attitude?
Firstly I don’t want Downing to leave. He is a class act and has the
ability to fire our team up the table. But it must be all about being
a team and the last thing we need is that team disrupted by the
Middlesbrough hardly made any signings, Emnes was for the future by
Didier Digard already looks a superb player in the engineroom. Justin
Hoyte is out injured at the moment and after a slow start is settling
in and looking like a future England prospect at right back. So
ideally we would have bought more players in and we now need some more
midfield and attacking options even if it means loaning them.
Sunderland’s buys appeared even more of a gamble than Middlesbrough’s.
I was mystified by the idea of buying a job lot of squad players from
Spurs but Steed is proving his worth now. Cisse was a gamble that
again seems to be paying off. McCartney seemed expensive to me. You
seemed to have assembled a bigger squad than us and had players who
looked good on paper and in all the right positions but bought at a
cost and with a lot of question marks against them. Put it this way, I
wouldn’t have swapped teams or squads in August.
What about links – players and staff – between our clubs?
I might be getting on but am not old enough to remember Alf Common the
£1 000 man that rocked football. But an awful lot of greats have
played for both clubs, usually with much controversy. When I was
helping raise money for a Clough statue, a man regularly brought in
pound coins and copper he had collected, telling me that he gave up on
Ayresome Park when Cloughie left, following him up to Roker Park, such
was his adoration for old big ‘ead. Many other Boro fans never forgave
Brian for pulling on the stripes.
George Hardwick was the one that got away for Sunderland. He was a
football man well ahead of his game, he developed ideas of total
football long before Cruyff had first kicked a ball. Such a shame that
Middlesbrough never took on our ex captain to lead us off the field.
Julio Arca probably enjoyed his best and worst experience for us
against you at the Riverside last season. His goal capped a storming
performance or would have done if he hadn’t been kicked off the park,
an injury he struggled to recover from until this season. He could
just be saving his best for Saturday again. A nice curling free kick
goal to blot out the memory of the one he scored for you against us a
couple of years ago would go down a real treat.
I take it you’ve been to the Sol. How does it compare with the
Riverside, and the same question re Roker Park v Ayresome?
Well, Stadium of Light was like the Mark 2 version of the Riverside.
New stadia were all the rage, we got in there first and everyone else
refined the plan.
Ayresome Park and Roker were from an altogether different age.
Ayresome was awesome to me and where I chose to worship my gods
whereas for me Roker was often a very windy place. Above all
terrifying place, it was an experience you just had to survive. All
those kids on boxes and swings in the paddock were very disconcerting
Will either of our clubs ever be a force in the Premier?
It will be very difficult to force our way into the top echelons of
the Premier and even harder to stick there. But you’ve got to believe
it is possible and clubs like Everton and Aston Villa are testament to
how a lot of patient work can pay off and you can be a spanner in the
works to the Big Four.
How come Boro seem to have greater luck attracting name players
to the same North East as Sunderland?
The longer you stick around in the Premier the better prospect you
have of attracting good players from home and abroad. We’ve been here
for a dozen years now. A settled management and boardroom also speaks
volumes about the stability and professionalism of Middlesbrough.
Club v country. Who wins for you?
Club hands down. I do sometimes go and support England and always get
wrapped up in the big tournaments. England’s form is so important to
the morale of every club but I’m a Boro fan born and bred and that
will always mean more.
You’ll doubtless be there when you play us on Saturday. Who’ll win?
Middlesbrough have to win – and will 2-1.
* Robert Nichols on Robert Nichols:
I have been editor of Fly Me To The Moon fanzine and website for at least 100 years now and a fully paid up season card carrying Boro fan for another 100 before that.
I caught Boro fever in the Jack Charlton era when my dad bought my
brother and me a season ticket alongside him in the Bob End. In those
days you could get a season ticket and still get the bus home out of
your change from a couple of new fangled decimal 50 pence pieces.
I was rubbish at playing football but watched it avidly all the way
through the many ups and downs before liquidation. My early heroes
were exciting players like big John Hickton, Terry Cooper and Bosko
Jankovic. Great names and great days but what followed was crisis and
Anyway, we bounced back and the times in the couple of decades since
have been of another planet altogether. Cup finals, UEFA Cup runs,
Brazilian stars, Italian stars – we’ve had it all. I’m in my 10th year
now since I last missed a game home or away and that means I’ve seen
an awful lot of victories over Sunderland. They don’t come an awful
lot more important than this weekends head to head. So, I’d settle for
one more Boro victory, please.