SO, TO THE last home game of the season at the relieved Riverside and the now traditional lap of cynical indifference. The fans get to express their begrudged appreciation for their heroes or berate the boss (as when beleaguered Robbo was roundly booed) while the players get to salute the supporters they have variously entertained, let down or slated over the season. As a demonstration of the contradictions inherent in the relationship between the players and the fans it is hard to top.
It is also a chance to bid a poignant farewell to various players who right now are still busy pledging loyalty to the club, are happy to see out their contracts and just need to sit down with the gaffer to see if the club can match their own ambitions because, hey, they owe it to their family to listen to what other clubs have to say and besides at this stage of their career they need first team football and a new challenge.
The signs to look for are veteran Aussies bringing their kids onto the pitch with them for what seems an overly enthusiastic waving session to each and every stand. After last season’s finale against Fulham Mark Viduka brought his brood along to see him do more contractual obligation waving than the queen before clearing his locker and handing in his car park pass.
This time round it could be Mark Schwarzer in the Viduka role at the head of a queue of players saluting with a cheery smile as they shuffle slowly towards the exit door for the last time. Much maligned Schwarzer is out of contract but the serial transfer requester says he is willing to talk to the club about a new deal (stop me if you have heard this one before) while his agent suggests Bayern Munich are keen to swoop for the Boro youngster as they look to finally replace stroppy septugenarian shot-stopper Oliver Kahn.
Schwarzer has his critics, there is no getting away from it. In fact he has never really won the hearts of the crowd and has been accused of poor kicking, a lack of presence in the box and, ironically, a lack of loyalty throughout his ten years at the Riverside. True, he is not the Premiership’s top keeper but he is certainly in there in the gaggle of second string goalies who are pretty much interchangeable and who are all equally under fire from their own short-sighted fans who see the mistakes close up on a weekly basis while advocating their replacement by identikit individuals whose clangers go almost unnoticed.
Time may be up – even his biggest fans will admit his powers have been waning and for a spell earlier this season almost every shot on target from outside the box seemed to fly in – but Schwarzer’s is arguably the best keeper Boro have ever had, and that includes Pearsy and Jim Platt. His dramatic decade between the sticks has coincided with a golden age of Wembley trips, the club as a star-studded top flight fixture, the glory of Cardiff and the great European adventure that culminated in Eindhoven. He has put in some brilliant displays of shot-stopping with UEFA Cup performaces away in Rome and Bucharest that were simply awesome.
Of course, in cultural shorthand he will forever be “the greatest Australian hero since Ned Kelly”.
But there could be a few others waving farewell for a final time too. Almost certainly Fabio Rochemback, possibly George Boateng and, who knows, maybe Gary O’Neil, homesick for the South Coat and Julio Arca, homesick for Washington, and even Lee Cattermole too as ‘no more Mr Nice Guy boss Gareth Southgate looks to strip, completely rebuild and fine-tune his mis-firing engine room. Watch out for anyone bringing their kids onto the pitch.