By tradition, Sunderland supporters couldn’t give a hoot about Middlesbrough. There may even have been an old County Durham bylaw making it a punishable offence to care. We are, in any case, too wound up in our collective scorn for – and, as of now, occasional amusement at – Newcastle, a feeling expressed in every way from friendly banter to homicidal malice. Boro, on the other hand, need Sunderland as rivals, perhaps to reassure themselves that they really are part of the North East and not “just a small club in Yorkshire”. Neil Darbyshire*, a top Fleet Street journalist, is a Boro lad, and – though he’ll hate me for saying so – an all-round good bloke. He professes a certain fondness for SAFC despite unfond memories of the sort of welcome he received as an away fan at Roker Park. Along the way, he had the good sense to adore Johnny Crossan, wish that he’d seen Wilf Mannion and struggle to forgive us for one player offloaded in the direction of Ayresome Park…….but how does he reckon Saturday’s viciously-timed (if you’re travelling from afar) game at the Stadium of Light will go?
I’d like to start this blog (my first on any subject and quite possibly my last) with a disclaimer. Although I regard myself as a man and boy Boro fan, I’ve been found seriously wanting in recent years, in terms of attending live matches.
In fact, I am exactly the kind of supporter dedicated fans rightly hold in lofty contempt – can’t manage to struggle to more than one or two games a season but never short of an opinion.
And to add insult to insult, whenever there is a cup final or other big game in the offing, a ticket always seems to materialise.
If you think I should be ashamed to be offering up my vapid meditations with such threadbare credentials, I agree.
But although I’m defensive, I suppose part of me thinks I have paid my dues in the past.
I know the horrors of coming back home over the Pennines from Oldham or Bury in a Beggs bus in the bleak mid winter, with no heating and a driver who had spent half the afternoon drinking bottles of Double Maxim on the back seat.
For years in the 60s and early 70s, I pitched up every other week at Ayresome Park with my Dad, infused with a hope and fervour that was often shaken but never quite extinguished.
I was a season ticket holder, a player in the Boro boys squad, and, for one glorious half-season, a ball boy.
Even now, it is quite common for me to read four or five newspaper accounts of a Boro game hoping for a better verdict and my weekend mood can be quite irrationally altered by whether the boys win or lose.
Whether all this is any qualification, you must judge for yourself, but the blogmeister, Mr Colin Randall, has asked me to drivel on for a bit, so here goes.
How did you think each club would do this season?
I was strangely optimistic about the prospects for both clubs before the season started. I’m not sure how great Keane is as a tactician but he’s clearly a motivator and seems to get good performances out of players who look fairly average on paper. I am a big fan of Malbranque and, to a slightly lesser extent Cisse and Diouf. Richardson and Jones look classy and Ferdinand junior and McCartney come with high expectations. But the problem might be that the manager has bought so many new players that it could take a while for him to work out his best combination and therefore for a settled team to come together. The 3-0 defeat against a fairly unsettled Man City team suggests there’s a bit to do, though the point at Wigan was well earned. By the way, does anyone remember the score in the Boro v Man City game on the final day of last season.
As for Middlesbrough, I think we have the potential to be as good as we ever have been. Intelligent young manager, great chairman and a team that is beginning to take shape. I love the combination of Alves, Tuncay and Mido up front and although the midfield lacks a bit of steel, there is no shortage of skill there. The defence has not quite gelled yet and has a tendency to panic a bit in the last quarter of the game. As a result we have conceded late (some very late) goals in all our games so far this term.
Can they develop as a top six team? Ask me again halfway through the season when we’ve just gone down 1-0 at Hull to a 93rd minute toe-ender from Dean Windass..
Sunlnd v Boro
In the same way I’ve always had a visceral dislike of everything to do with the Mags, I’ve always had a soft spot for Sunderland (although I’ve only just forgiven you for selling us George Kinnell). My first full season of watching football was 1963-64 but I had seen a few games the year before when Sunderland were pipped for promotion to Division One by Chelsea (whatever happened to them?) on goal average and Middlesbrough one place behind in fourth. Incidentally, Boro must have broken all records in 1962-3 for goals conceded by a team which came so high in the league. In 42 games, we let in 85 goals, 30 more than Sunderland and one more than Luton Town, who finished bottom.
So 63-64 came with great anticipation for both clubs and Boro made a brilliant start. After five games, we had won four and scored 17 goals. Sunderland, who were also flying and would eventually be promoted, came to Ayresome in October with a team which included Ashurst, Hurley, Sharkey, Crossan, Mulhall and Herd. They all looked fantastic and actually passed the ball around the pitch – to each other! Our boys mostly tried to kick them up in the air and, without ever being anywhere near the same skill level, managed to win 2-0.
It was a travesty, but a travesty in our favour and you have to take them when they are offered. It was almost as much of an injustice as Sunderland’s 2-0 win at the Riverside three years ago, a complete steal just about the only game Sunderland won all season.
Roker and the Stadium of Light
I’m ashamed to say I have not yet visited the Stadium of Light and, frankly, Roker Park was never the friendliest ground for a Boro away fan, so I’m not in a desperate hurry. My abiding memory of being in Sunderland is of one Saturday in early May 1973. I had just been playing rugby for Middlesbrough in the Percy Park sevens. We had been dumped out fairly early by Gosforth, (Mags by another name), who had been unsporting enough to field two British Lions in their team and were on the team coach disconsolately trundling back home.
Unfortunately, the driver thought it would be quickest to go through the town centre. It wasn’t! Four hours later, we finally completed the 25 miles back to Acklam Park, after watching thousands of hysterical Mackems with idiot grins, hooting, whistling, shouting and generally blocking up the roads.
Anyone would have thought they’d won the FA Cup.
Ayresome and Riverside
It’s like comparing chalk and cheese. Ayresome was a town centre ground, where everyone walked for at least the last half-mile. My image, probably rose-tinted, is of raucus, excitable, recently lubricated men in donkey jackets coming together at the turnstiles from all directions, meeting up with friends and relatives on the way, discussing the teams and generally raising the anticipation. And of course the personal memories of youth, and of close family no longer here, mean the sentimental links to Ayresome Park will always be strong. Blue remembered hills and all that.
The Riverside is a great venue and I enjoy watching football there but everyone drives, everyone sits and there isn’t a decent pub for the best part of a mile. On the plus side, I’ve never seen rivulets of urine running down the steps at the Riverside, from men too jammed in, or too idle to fight their way to the Gents to jettison the three pints of Samson they had on the way to the ground.
So I guess that’s progress.
Your Lads/ Our Boys
I never saw Brian Clough play but he was probably thought of as Boro’s greatest loss when he went off to Sunderland. As it turned out, he only played a handful of games before injury ended his career (seemed a bit more than that at the time – ed), so I suppose we got the best end of the deal. For my money the best player going the other way was Stan Anderson. In the few matches he played, he led by example and took over as manager in 1966 at what was then Boro’s lowest ebb.
Raich Carter, the great Sunderland icon of 1937, had never really inspired as a manager and by now had completely run out of steam.We had been relegated to the Third Division for the first time in our history.
After a terrible start to the 1966-7 season, Anderson took us straight back up and over the next few years built the foundations of the team inherited by Jack Charlton, which took us back into the top flight for the first time in 20 years.
Best players down the years
As with Clough, I never saw Jim Baxter play for Sunderland but he must have been pretty handy. Dennis Tueart, Colin Todd and Kevin Phillips spring to mind and, if only for his saves in the ’73 final, Jimmy Montgomery.
Ayresome Park was always haunted by the ghosts of past players – Camsell, Fenton, Mannion, Hardwick. Almost any ‘Boro fan who saw him in his pomp, will tell you – tear in eye – that Wilf Mannion was the best inside forward ever to play the game.
Of those I have seen play, this is my hastily-prepared, non-exhaustive and eminently debatable team of teams, selected in their prime and playing in 4-3-3 formation.
Schwarzer: Craggs, Maddren, Pallister, Cooper: Armstrong, Souness, Murdoch: Juninho, McIlmoyle, Downing. Subs: Woodgate (even though he is an ungrateful turncoat), Crossan, Ravanelli.
I suppose it’s bound to be 2-1, which has been the scoreline in each of Boro’s games this season. I think Boro have the better firepower and Wheater should be back to shore up the centre of defence, so, provided we can defend a bit better in the final quarter, I think Boro should win.
But then I would say that.
* Neil Darbyshire was an inspired reporter and a distiguished crime correspondent, working for the Evening Standard and then The Daily Telegraph, where he rose to deputy editor before moving to the Daily Mail. He has mentioned his footballing prowess when young; he continued to play for Fleet Street teams, but is probably better at other sports – rugby, cricket and golf. He knows more about Bordeaux wine than the rest of Middlesbrough put together, which means he must have been away a bit too long. And he makes great speeches when you get fired or have some other reason for throwing a leaving do.