BORO’S last FA Cup semi-final was marked by that spectacular display of colour with the Big Cards. Remember?
Dozens of volunteers got to Old Trafford early to lay out 14,000 cards that when raised just before kick-off created a striking image of a red background and a white band. Red hot iron, white hot steel. I am convinced that was the moment the penny dropped with Boro marketing chiefs that the chest band was a simple, distinctive and very marketable motif that struck a chord with the supporters of this club.
With another FA semi-final on the horizon can we make a similar splash? Have we got the time? Have we got the will?
The big cards display was a triumph for a determined group of fans working in tandem with the Gazette. It was a triumph for the ingenuity and drive of ordinary Teessiders and a reflection of the determination of Boro fans to be seen to visibly proud of their club. As someone who could see all the parts of the jigsaw, let me elaborate.
The idea to do something was thrashed out on the Fly Me To The Moon message board. It was a time of great passion and creativity on the Boro fans’ forum and although there were far fewer users than today when every man and his dog are WAP enabled with broadband in every room, what they board lacked in quantity it made up in quality. It was vibrant and ready to make things happen.
It was the halcyon days of the PRT, the Peoples’ Republic of Teesside. The steam was going out of the Riverside Revolution and Boro were getting a kicking in the national media. We had beaten their darlings Manchester United (again) and apparently it was revelation to the press that, unlike in the plush suburban landscaped paradise within the M25, football grounds in the North were situated in towns, and industrial ones at that. Oh, and we had low crowds. How novel. Boro fans reacted by forming the wagons into a circle and were ready to take on all comers.
The PRT mobilised in a determined defence of all things Boro. It was the birth of the cult of “the Smoggy” as Teessiders embraced the image of a proud industrial power house, the Infant Hercules who had been an engine in building the nation. It was a defiant shield from criticisism. We were ready to exert ourself, evangelise our undiminished pride, show we were battered but unbowed after Robbo and express our righteous anger… and then we reached the semi-final. After a sticky season we were on the verge of playing in the final again and were being given a national stage on which to demonstrate our passion and to show the strength of our revival.
The early cyber-plans drive to “do something” came from a poster called Sitheman, a teenager from Northallerton who wanted everyone to produce ticker tape but gradually it was refined and the baton was passed to another dynamic poster called Juno10, ironically, coincidentally, fantastically and spookily in real life called Steve Gibson. He came up with the idea of cards and was determined to pull it off but had no idea of cost or logistics.
I got excited about the project and gushed at the both the Gazette editor and promotions chief about the beauty and simplicity of the idea, the striking image it would produce and – here’s the money shot – the exciting branding possibilities for the Gazette’s ‘”Tees-Pride” campaign. How could it NOT work?
They bought the concept but weren’t sure it could be done. There were legal problems. Would the club come on board? Would the FA buy it? Could we get a sponsor to pay for the printing on lush glossy cards? But in a fruitful meeting with enthusiastic Juno and practical Fly Me chief Rob Nichols they were persuaded that if we could print the cards a Red Army advance party of volunteers would get them on the seats no matter what it took.
In truth it was a bluff. There was no army of volunteers nor any way of getting them there but once printing started it had to happen and Juno and Rob embarked on a recruiting drive that made the press gangs look shy. Within days two dozen PRT footsoldiers had signed up. There would have been more if needed I’m certain.
Meanwhile we hit problems. The FA would only play ball if Arsenal would do something similar in the interests of fair play, Old Trafford security wanted details in advance of everyone who was going to turn up early before they would play ball and Boro were reluctant to get involved unless they had the headline billing yet were not prepared to take the lead in any real sense as they had silky smooth ticket distribution to arrange and were very busy.
Arsenal were fantastic. I rung their press office and explained. “Yeah, no problem mate. How many shall we print, 20 thousand? Thirty?” I spent a week on the phone cajoling, begging and brow-beating everyone concerned. There were 14,000 cards printed up and waiting on pallets in the Gazette car park on the Thursday morning with Old Trafford still being awkward and no transport arranged to get them there. It was almost cancelled. There was a fiery meeting . I swore profusely and said I’d drive the bloody things there myself if neccessary. It had to happen or the Gazette would look stupid. They had been paid for. We had nothing to lose.
In the end it worked like a dream. The last two minibuses between the Humber and the Tyne were found on the Saturday morning and the team confirmed by fax, although what Old Trafford security made of a list of names comprising of internet pseudonyms like Jankovic, Bernies Quiff and Fat Branca’s-really-42 I don’t know.
They got there three hours before kick-off and laid out all the cards – and generally in the right order – and finished just as Boro fans started to take their seats. The team of heroes had got up at the crack of dawn and they weren’t paid a penny. They did it because they believed in the concept of ordinary Teessiders organising themselves to show they cared about their town, their image and their club. And it looked absolutely fantastic. The Arsenal cards looked like metallic sludge. Boro’s eye-catching show really symbolised something.
I raise the issue because we are at the semi-final stage again, and at a moment in our history when the club is at an unprecedented high that may never be repeated. It should not go unmarked by some collective display of pride, passion and, well, gratitude from the ordinary supporters.
We have seen some fantastic shows from relatively small groups of supporters on our European adventures. We must learn the lessons and make them part of our semi-final adventure. Remember the impact Banik had with their balloons. Suddenly after half-time they appeared with everyone holding one blue and one white balloon, there was a dance, a song, a shuffle and then a brilliant synchronised popping that sounded fantastic. Charlton had their ticker-tape and it looked awesome, clouds of phosphorescent flickering as the teams ran out to a roar.
We could do that. We could do better. But we must get it organised quickly. If groups of fans have practical ideas and are ready to back them with time and effort then I’ll do whatever I can to help make them happen. E-mail me.