WHO WOULD have thought that a conscious, colourful, co-ordinated public show of support for Boro as they go into a massive cup clash game with a trip to Wembley as the prize for victory could provoke a bitter backlash from fellow supporters?
Plans by the Twe12th Man group to stage a pre-match big card rallying cry in the North Stand have provoked sneering and some vitriolic internet sniping from detractors. The cards will spell out the words SPORTING GLORY – a phrase Steve Gibson has used several times to sum up what he believes Boro are in business to achieve – but the supporters who naively thought that the set piece slogan before the Cardiff game reflects the essence of what the club is about are now stunned at being denounced as an unrepresentative self-elected clique of uber-fans in an undignified cyber squabble that has cast a shadow over the build-up to a season-defining showdown.
They have been surprisingly savaged over the semantics of the sound-bite, the ‘small time’ approach of using the now familiar big cards in what is “only” a quarter-final and the process by which the stunt and slogan was decided – but their real crime appears to be to presume that most fans would want to take part in such a collective show of club approved support.
The plans, in the same vein as the eye-catching ‘Eindhoven 2006’ statement of intent before the Steaua game and the ‘Reborn’ display celebrating 20 years of spectacular progress since the club escaped liquidation and kicked off the 1986 season in exile at Hartlepool, seemed innocuous enough. The Cardiff game is massive: victory will send Boro to the new Wembley for the first time and mark a second FA Cup semi-final in three seasons, not bad for a club that only reached its first one 11 years ago after over a century of barren under-achievement. Unless you have become very blaze and started to think of Boro as some powerhouse by right it is a landmark most would think worthy of some form of celebration by supporters.
But the plans, confirmed on Thursday, ran into immediate hostile fire on the Fly Me To The Moon board. The entire concept of the cards and the whole reason d’etre of the group took the first broadside and then the ‘Sporting Glory’ slogan was aggressively deconstructed too. It is hard to judge how representative the factions on the Fly Me board are in numerical terms but there is no doubt that the cyber-cynics reflect a widespread tendency on Teesside to habitually knock almost every aspect of activity on Planet Boro with an almost religious zeal and enjoy it.
Dealing with the last point first, ‘Sporting Glory’ seems an apt little encapsulation of what Boro are about. I would have suggested that it was what all clubs are about but clearly that is not true. In the grubby cash chasing world of the brash new football industry most clubs are about maximising revenue streams, growing the global brand and realising profits. They are about leveraged buy-outs, overly generously dividends to major shareholders and exciting business strategies involving overseas holding companies and exploitation of Far Eastern TV rights. They are about pimping the heritage, tradition and identity of proud old institutions to the dollar rich, the Russian oligarchs and the chancers looking for a quick killing.
But for Boro, the Small Town in Europe, the upstarts, the raggy arsed rovers punching above their weight because a local businessman sticks his hand in his pocket more than his accountant may think wise and because a higher proportion of dedicated supporters than any other conurbation in the country have turned out for generations inspired by hopes and dreams even in the face of reality repeatedly intruding, that phrase seems the right one. It is as relevant a motto for Boro as the traditional optimistic ‘Erimus’ or ‘We Shall Overcome.’
Certainly it is a phrase that Steve Gibson has revisited on many occasions. Originally he used it in a no-hold barred Century question and answer session with Bernie Slaven before the UEFA Cup game away at Grasshoppers in which, after marking Steve McClaren’s card for playing one up front at home to Portsmouth, he said: “I am a businessman when I am at my business and IÃ¢ÂÂm a football fan when IÃ¢ÂÂm at the football club. We do not run MFC as a business, we run it for sport and glory. There is no board, no paid board members, I take nothing from the club in expenses. It costs me to be involved at MFC.”
Soon after he repeated the phrase, telling the Gazette about the importance of Eindhoven he said: “The fans can play a big part in that. We do not run Middlesbrough FC as a business. We run it for sporting glory, for occasions such as this.” And again, at the start of this season, asked about whether he could afford to spend on spectacular signings he said: “As far as we are concerned this club is not about money or profit … it’s about sporting glory.”
So the phrase has a currency on Planet Boro. It is small minded nit-picking to question whether Gibbo was misheard in the original interview and actually said ‘sport AND glory’ and then use that imagined discrepency to attack the idea that fans should seize onto the concept of trumpeting the ideal.
He DID use that formulation earlier this season when he blasted the Daily Mail for suggesting he was about to sell out to a Russian squillionaire. “I have always said that I have bought Boro and want to keep Boro for the sport and for the glory. If anyone else is in football to turn a profit you would have to ask them about that,” he snapped. Tomato, tomAto, let’s call the whole thing off? Whatever the syntax and context the message remains constant. And important. And, hopefully, true. And crucially, it is a message that most fans can identify with and unite around.
Most. There are plenty who can’t and won’t and see first and foremost an unmissable opportunity for message-board mudslinging and the plans for the big cards sparked a renewed upsurge of what appears to be an engrained bitterness towards the entire Twe12th Man project.
The group’s press release immediately raised hackles, possibly because of its corporate PR feel and tendency to paint from an emotional palette…. but hey, who am I to complain about adjective heavy alliteration or hyperbole?
“The subliminal and striking message of Ã¢ÂÂSPORTING GLORYÃ¢ÂÂ on a backdrop of red, with the famous Boro white chestband, was chosen from a shortlist devised by the group after consultation and will be executed in front of the watching millions at home and around the world using almost 6,000 red, white and blue cards at BoroÃ¢ÂÂs North Stand Ã¢ÂÂkop-endÃ¢ÂÂ as the team
run-out to Pigbag. Geoff Thomas, Event Co-ordinator and the principal designer of the huge display offered an insight into the inspiration behind the SPORTING GLORY message.
Ã¢ÂÂCollectively, the group were desperate to make an impact on behalf of Boro fans for this game and a card display satisfies all the criteria the group want to achieve in making a bold statement of intent, whilst at the same time hopefully inspiring a passionate backing for the team. In the modern cosmopolitan climate where the Ã¢ÂÂpowerhouseÃ¢ÂÂ clubs regularly adopt an arrogant and often disrespectful approach through the fielding of Ã¢ÂÂsacrificialÃ¢ÂÂ weakened teams within domestic competition, in favour of the financial riches offered by even limited achievement within premier European club competition, we felt it appropriate to use the live stage to re-affirm the very ethos of our club away from the modern day financially-driven rewards of underachievement and deliver a strong reminder to the football world that as a club, Boro and their fans uphold in every
way, the traditional sporting virtues of the English game.
Ã¢ÂÂSPORTING GLORYÃ¢ÂÂ achieves this perfectly and positions the groups standpoint alongside the very words of our leader Steve Gibson during an interview before the the clubs first appearance in a European club cup final Ã¢ÂÂ the UEFA Cup against Seville in Eindhoven in 2006. Whilst the Twe12th Man remain conscious and sympathetic towards the clubÃ¢ÂÂs need to keep
pace with market forces within the modern game, the group are also mindful of the need to remind fans Ã¢ÂÂ young and old Ã¢ÂÂ that football IS above all, about winning Ã¢ÂÂ and winning with honour.Ã¢Â? Geoff explained.
I’m not sure about honour. I’d be happy winning by all means neccessary and in a way that outrages the tabloids to be honest. But it is certainly about winning. What has shaped this club has been the sporting glory of coming back from oblivion to win back to back promotions under Rioch, of winning in the play-offs, of getting to Wembley for the first time, of the crazy, all out attack and defiant double final and relegation of 1997, of beating Liverpool in the Coca Cola Cup semi the following year to bounce back to Wembley again, of the spontaneous emotional combustion on the whistle at Cardiff, of beating the likes of Roma, Lazio, Partisan, Stuttgart and Steaua to get to a European final, of upsetting the odds to turn over Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal. Sporting Glory.
That’s where the action is: being part of emotionally uplifting moments of transcendental joy, collective celebrations of victory that make the suffering worthwhile, EIOing in the Gatekeeper and down Wembley Way. We’ve all been there. That is what we dream about, not grinding out draws against Bolton and Portsmouth to finish 13th. It is about all those long, tedious campaigns and years of emotional investment being sublimated into all too brief snippets of ecstacy. It is about the all to rare rewards of being part of those moments of success. And that is what the Cardiff game and what lies just beyond offer another taste of.
If you don’t understand that, can’t revel in that message and relish what is on offer, why are you a fan?