I WON’T DO the mandatory review of the year if that’s alright. We were all there and we know all about the incredible highs – Basel, Steaua, Eindhoven up till kick-off – and the lows – Villa at home, the Villa Park semi-final, Eindhoven after the game started, and the sinking feeling in the Summer that with no incoming and yet another rookie boss installed in the dugout a golden chance to build on the unprecedented platform of reaching a European final had been lost.
But I do want to look back at a watershed period of compelling drama, political intrigue, turbulent emotions and seismic shifts in the power balance that signalled the beginning of the end for Steve McClaren and threw the whole future of the Riverside Revolution into the balance. The subsequent quest for glory in the UEFA Cup may have disguised it but in January and February of 2006 the club was coming apart at the seams.
First some context: In December Boro had lost 1-0 at Chelsea, 2-0 at Liverpool, edged to a 2-0 UEFA Cup win over Litex in front of a meagre crowd of 9436 that prompted the gaffemeister-in-chief to insult 12,000 season ticket holders by saying they were not loyal supporters, twice lost the lead to draw 3-3 with Spurs, then in quick succession at home limped out of the Carling Cup quarter-final to Blackburn and slumped 2-0 in the league to them before finishing the year with a dire home goalless draw against Man City that left them fourth bottom.
The storm clouds were gathering. On January 2nd, Boro were 2-1 up at Newcastle when a poor punch by Mark Schwarzer from a stoppage time corner fell to Lee Clark and he cracked home a long range leveller. The keeper promptly slapped in a transfer request amid tales of a post-match bust up and lurid rumours about strained dressing room relations.
The slump deepened as Boro were left holding on for a 1-1 draw in their FA Cup clash away at minnows Nuneaton then lurched towards all out crisis as they were humiliated in a tear-stained 7-0 spanking at Arsenal. The result was bad enough but Mac, by now completely divorced from the provocative impact his reality-bending post-match statements were having on the public, came out clutching a can of four star and proceeded to sprinkle it on the flames as he said “anyone would struggle at Arsenal with ten men ” oblivious to the fact that Doriva was sent off off on 73 minutes when an inexperienced and ill-prepared team were 6-0 down.
Next up was a home game against Wigan. Boro gave it everything as they leaked an early goal but fought back to 2-2 only to concede a last minute winner from a yet another sloppily defended corner when although they had all 11 men and the massed theoretical knowledge of a thousand coaching manuals defending they still could not keep it out.
The anger was ripping apart Planet Boro as the Macophobes, always a vocal minority, seemed to have won the battle for the soul of the crowd and the waverers reacted to the prospect of relegation. The letters pages of the Gazette, the message board and the bearpit phone-ins saw carnage as the rebels spat vitriol at the boss, the spineless players and anyone who backed the regime. Teesside was a tinder box – then Keith Lamb threw in a hand grenade.
In a flesh-pressing exercise designed to diffuse the situation Lamb went on the Three Legends on January 24th to do a straight forward Q and A. McClaren was out of the country as Boro were in warm weather training for a few days. The questions were assumed to have been picked out in advance. What could possibly go wrong? Lamb diplomatically shut up shop for 85 minutes. General trend upwards… blah, blah, blah… never had it so good… the manager has total support of the board… blah, blah, blah… excellent academy… playing in Europe… in real terms prices cheaper than caviar, truffles and cocaine… blah, blah blah…
But things suddenly started to get interesting as Lamb admitted that the boss HAD made mistakes and also revealed that skipper Gareth Southgate had taken control of the situation and called impromtu dressing room meeting to demand after the Arsenal battering, as perhaps the manager should have, that the senior player started showing some fight and justifying their diamond studded wage packets. Further, Southagte had followed that with a meeting of younger players, putting his arms around their shoulders, showing sympathy for them being exposed at Arsenal, offering support and boosting their dented morale. With Lamb enthusiastically backing what other chief executives may have seen as a disruptive bid to usurp the manager’s responsibilities it sounded every bit as if there had been a palace coup.
There followed a bizarre moment that delighted the conspiracists, ignited an immediate switchboard meltdown and piled the pressure on the beleagured boss while offering a sudden surge of hope to the Sack Mac faction. The bombshell was dropped with just two minutes on the clock. There is an old slapstick sketch in which a snake oil saleman is unmasked as he asks his would-be impressed customer: “I’ve never met you before have I sir?” and gets the reply: “No dad.” That didn’t quite happen on the Legends but no one have been completely suprised if it had as the suspiciously well informed, previously unknown caller rang in to say that it had come to his attention that McClaren had yet to actually sign the new contract he was pictured with, pen in hand, back in November. Was it true? Tick, tick, tick, tick…. Yes, admitted Lamb. It was true. While the contract was agreed in principle it hadn’t been signed. “Tear it up!” screamed half of Teesside. “Don’t anyone give him a bloody pen”.
What was that all about? My understanding is that the contract remained unsigned because Mac was unhappy that instead of the four year contract stated it was actually a rolling one year contract over four years, renewable annually depending on performance related targets being met. The new deal swung the balance of power significantly back in the favour of a club who had been stung by his attempted defections to Leeds and Newcastle and wary of a mooted move to England and fiercely ambitious McClaren didn’t like it one bit. Lamb’s shocking revelations bounced the Boro boss into a sickeningly grinful televised circus signing but also publicly revealed the growing cracks behind the scenes and an on-going power-struggle.
Worst was to come. Having being battered by Arsenal and fallen to a sucker punch by Wigan, Boro had then lulled themselves into a false sense of security when they won 3-0 away at the worst team in Premiership history
But in the next game, the traumatic 4-0 Riverside rout at the hands of Aston Villa every element of the club – players, fans and board – were left emotionally exposed, battered and drained. Arsenal wasnÃ¢ÂÂt when we hit rock bottom, Villa was. It was the moment of truth.
Against Arsenal Steve McClaren was still in denial. It was because we played kids. Because we only had ten men. It was because no one can play against Henry in that form. But having capitulated so cravenly against a poor Villa side it simply wasnÃ¢ÂÂt possible any longer to disguise the enormity of the situation. Something had to be done. The team was in freefall and the crowd in revolt. The season was in meltdown and the depth of crisis was visible on and off the pitch.
The crisis of confidence among the players was shown as the tension of being a 17-year-old holding a team together became too much for Lee Cattermole and he started to cry. Heart-rending stuff and at that moment the crowd knew that despite accusations to the contrary the players DID care. The crisis of faith in the crowd was audible with the damning soundtrack of boos and vitriolic barracking and the sight of a fan running 50 yards to confront the boss.
The symbolic throwing of the season ticket by S Red Book holder Mark Davison – many people’s player of the year – is a moment frozen in time. It crystalised the tensions at play in a pivotal moment in the club’s history. The team were sleepwalking toward oblivion. Without that spasm of raw emotion what would have happened? Would Boro have made it past Roma, Basel, Bucharest? At that moment relegation looked far more likely than Eindhoven.
The rejection of the season ticket, an abdication from the bondage of support and something Boro fans would normally associate with Mackems and Geordies was an explosive act of utter frustration – and one that judging by the applause as the protester was hauled off, struck a chord with many. Neither the shocked manager nor the team who saw the incident could be under illusions any longer.
Linked and just as significant was a unconditional reiteration of loyalty late in the game when a chorus of “you are my Boro” started in the North Stand and soon swept around the ground and grew in intensity to a quite moving pitch of passion. The crowd had spoken: what was happening on the pitch was unacceptable but they would never walk away.
Enter Steve Gibson. After the game, and after a soul-baring dressing room lock in, Mark Viduka was involved in an ugly exchange of insults and gestures with angry fans outside the ground as the bitter divisions between team and supporters came as close as possible to outright conflict.
Hearing of the disturbance the Boro icon, the man who had shaped the new club with vision, cash and drive and who stood to lose more far than most if it all unravelled, came down and bravely opened up to the still fuming fans gathered outside partly in demonstration and partly in desperation. Red Books were offered to him and refused.
For a few weeks previously the judgment of the once untouchable Gibson himself had been questioned, but he dealt with angst head on and diffused an incipient revolt.
He said he recognised the passion in the fan running on and he would not be banned. He recognised the football had not been good and pledged it would change. He insisted there was no point in agitating against the boss because he and he alone would take those decisions and he was not inclined to axe the man who had delivered silverware and Europe.
It was a key intervention. Word spread quickly and GibsonÃ¢ÂÂs personal kudos and willingness to confront the problems temporarily halted the anger. It helped hold the club together when it looked like it was set to fall into bitterly divided factions. It bought the breathing space that allowed the team to put the pieces back together. A win was crucial and Boro got it in the FA Cup against Coventry, but tensions were still running high.
Then came Chelsea and an affirmation of what the squad was capable of achieving and how the crowd was able to react. Goals, confidence, unconditional support, the Southgate Salute and players running to the fans to celebrate… suddenly the club looked a single united entity again.
Happy New Year.