SO, IS Leeds a derby? That the question even needs to be posed is telling and speaks volumes about Teesside’s cultural confusion and identity crisis. Distance, geography and logic suggest it is not… but Boro are braced for the biggest crowd of the season and the arrival of our ever friendly cousins from the south for a powder keg clash will bring generations of historical emnity bubbling back to the surface. It sure feels like a derby….
Over 4,000 away fans travelling for a game that is on the box and the rising tension on Teesside suggests this is more than just the usual three points at stake – yet in the Gazette today Teessider Matthew Bates insists emphatically that it is not a derby game. But then again, he is a young lad from Stockton, a “town full of mackems”. He will naturally look to the North and to more recent rivalries when it comes to bragging rights.
He will have grown up with regular Riverside clashes against our Tyne-Tees screentime rivals Newcastle and Sunderland and for as long as he has been in a first team feature fallen giants Leeds have been in their schadenfraude inducing post-Ridsdale nightmare of administration, relegation and lower league exile.
For an older generation though, and especially those on the “Yorkshire” side of the river who grew up before Middlebrough was culturally and politically moved 30 miles north in the municiple shake-ups of the late 60s and early 70s and who have friends and family and business links that point them south to Thirsk, Whitby, Northallerton and beyond, Leeds have a different historical footprint.
For a decade or more Leeds were the successful and dominant evil empire lurking aggressively to the south and a serious threat to Boro in the battle for hearts and minds in the playgrounds of the town and more so in the disputed badlands of North Yorkshire. For fans of a certain age, Leeds are the old enemy. Grrrrrrrr.
Leeds was always a derby in the 1970s. When you watched Yorkshire TV the Revie machine was an ever present headline hogging juggernaut. That is who you were measured against, not Newcastle and Sunderland which were still then dark and distant alien towns practically on the Scottish border.
Leeds were the Manchester United of their day, the glory hunter’s choice and all the sheep had the stupid sock tags with the numbers on and smiley Leeds badges painted on their haversacks. Duncan McKenzie could jump over a mini you know.
When Boro were still in the second division and Leeds were winning trophies and carving through Europe the pecking order was quite clear. They were the big boys who offered reflected glory and glamour and to eschew that to follow Boro was to elect for a life of self-inflicted masochism and mediocrity.
And it wasn’t just kids who fell into dirty Leed’s cynical embrace. Every fortnight there would be coach-loads of Teessiders travelling to Elland Road, adults reafffirming their Yorkshire identity and rowdy young ruffians enticed by the boot boy mystique.
The problem was made concrete when Jack Charlton took Boro up and we went head-to- head with them. More so when we started to beat them. What had been a patronising pat on the head for the little neighbours or even a smarmy second team affection because of their hero Charlton became a more marked snarling antagonism and soon the game became a serious point of friction and a real battle for status. In the seventies beating Leeds was far more important than beating the pair to the north.
Leeds was one game when Middlesbrough had to metaphorically lock up its daughters. Shops put shutters up and all police leave was cancelled. There was always trouble: in and around the station, in the pubs and in and around the ground as the meatheads on both sides fought it out. There were running battles in Boot Boy Alley and the Old Mans Park as swarms of kids in flares and parkas ducked for cover and the police horses charged up and down Linthorpe Road. At away games too. It was a trip where the Beggs Buses convoy often came back without windows and on the approach by foot you got asked the time a lot. It was a horrible and hostile place to go.
Since then thankfully the antagonism has eased. The immediate cultural conflict with our former sparring partners has faded as Middlesbrough has settled into its marriage with Stockton and started to get on better with the in-laws. We watch Tyne-Tees and are part of One North East, or South Newcastle or whatever the quangocrats’ sub-region is called these days. The once live grenade of the Leeds game has been defused.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a residual hostility. There is, and mainly because of the institutional boorish Tetley bittermen mentality of the Leeds travelling crowd, the only group that surpass Newcastle and Sunderland in their conscious nastiness. These are fans after all who sang in praise of the Yorkshire Ripper to taunt police. And Munich to taunt manchester United. And they started the paedophile taunts here too. Nice.
Of course, it doesn’t help that their fans laughed as Juninho sobbed on the pitch when we got relegated at Elland Road in 1997 too but while that still stings a bit that is a minor charge on the historic crime sheet.
So it may only be a derelict shell of a derby and not even recognised in some parts of Teesside as being relevent – the poll on the gazettelive.co.uk Boro page edged just toward sthe ‘no’ camp – but for many this will still be our biggest game of the season. And not just because of the massive pressure on the boss.
MEANWHILE, as we await the arrival of the silly sock tag and smiley badge wearing hordes from the south, there is an interesting and well researched bit on the Beeb blog today as their Football League man Paul Fletcher asks “What Has Gone Wrong With Boro?” Anyone want to tell him?
There’s a fantastic bit on the St Pauli experience – “The mood inside is more like an illegal rave than the sedate fare [of the PL]” – on the excellent Sabotage Times.
And now the Chilean miners have been sprung – either in a heart-warming story of co-operation, courage and redemption or a cynical airtime filler for rolling news depending on your perspective – here’s a fantastic piece on Franklin Lobos, the local football legend turned hewer stranded down there among their number.
All this and more (cue weekly plug) on my trendy twitter page which you can “follow” here.