Saturday, 28 June 2014
LOVE, DEATH AND HAMILTON RICARD
From The Guardian, March 2010
I've been going through a bit of a period of emotional upheaval. I won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say here that the week it all blew up like a rogue septic tank Middlesbrough lost twice. "You would have thought," a friend of mine said in the consoling way men have in times of crisis, "you would have thought that after all you've been through recently your team could have at least produced a decent result for you. Bloody hell, they even missed a penalty at Blackpool."
My friend knows me very well, but he clearly doesn't know the Boro at all. While there may be other clubs who, subliminally sensing the distress of one of their supporters will go out and give a glowing display of uplifting football in an attempt to console and reassure them, that is not the Middlesbrough way.
If Boro find a fan lying face down in the proverbial cowpat, they do not haul him to his feet and gently wipe his cheeks with a hankie while muttering soft words of reassurance. No, they thump the toe of their boot on the back of his noggin and twist it from side to side until their ankle gets tired. And after over four decades following the rotten bastards it is exactly what I need and expect. In times of turmoil you have to hold on to the constants. Frankly, if this had all gone off when we'd just signed Juninho, or Ravanelli, or were making heroic comebacks on our way to the Uefa Cup final, I'd have become so disoriented insanity would surely have followed.
I was supposed to go to the game against QPR on Saturday, but I phoned the friend I was going with and told him I couldn't make it. When I explained why he said, "Oh, yes, I can see that. I mean, the Riverside isn't a place to be visiting if you're feeling a bit depressed. In fact, even if you're elated it's a bit of a suicide risk these days. Forty-five minutes of the sort of football we've been playing this season and we'd be pulling you down off the Transporter bridge."
It reminded me of one of the dark, final days of Bryan Robson's regime. Literally a dark day, as it happens – the sky was the colour of a deep bruise, the rain was hanging in the air like an unfinished argument and Teesside generally appeared so grim and forbidding it made the city in the movie Se7en look like Trumpton. Boro were playing Bradford City, a side so inept it was always a surprise they didn't get lost in the tunnel. Yet a feeling of discomfort and unease filled the chests of the home fans walking to the ground – even those who hadn't eaten a parmo.
Ahead of me were three big-faced men with those deep, rumbling Teesside voices that sound like a half-laden coal truck driving slowly over a cattle-grid. One said: "If Boro lose today I'm going to climb up on the Transporter bridge and chuck myself in the river."
"If Boro lose today, there'll be a queue," one of the others said. "Aye," the third man said: "You'll have to take a number like down the DSS. You'll have to wait for them to call you."
Gallows humour is what I want from football, the certainty of bubbling grievance and simmering resentment. My Grandad took me to Ayresome Park for the first time when I was six, slipped the gateman a shilling for a "squeeze" and lifted me over the turnstile at the Bob end.
I had spent most of my life in the company of women, in houses that were calm and cosy, full of cushions and the smell of baking scones and lily of the valley soap. Ayresome Park, by contrast, was cavernous and cold. The seats were hard, the air filled with the scent of fried onions and stale ale and the harsh growl of the crowd, always teetering between rage and joyful laughter. Though I did not recognise it at the time, I had entered the world of men.
My grandad pointed at the famous pitch that day, green and shimmering with autumn dew, and said: "Look there, that's the finest turf in the country." And the bloke behind said: "Hardly surprising, all the shite it's had on it".
In the year that my grandfather died from a stroke Middlesbrough went into receivership, the gates at Ayresome Park were padlocked, the club passed away. I saw my grandmother alive for the last time on the same afternoon I watched a Nicky Mohan own goal gift victory to visiting Swindon. My daughter was born the summer Boro moved to the Riverside.
It would be easy to interpret this as somehow symbolic, a link in the chain. It isn't, though, it's simply coincidence, and we stand in the middle of it all looking for signs and portents and trying to piece together some plausible narrative from the chaos. Which, as my friend said last Friday when I mentioned it to him, is pretty much the way most of us felt when we were watching Mikkel Beck and Hamilton Ricard.