BORO have a chance to shake off the rusty shackles of history at Hillsborough.
A win would finish the season with a smile (a wry one maybe, but a smile nevertheless) and cast off the weight of a long barren run since New Year without a single win on the road… one point from 10 games so far in 2013 is a terrible, taunting memory we would all be keen to airbrush with the short term half-forgotten thrill of victory.
But if Boro win and a couple of other related results swing the right way – battling Barnsley at already safe Huddersfield and Peterborough at creaky Crystal Palace – it would relegate Wednesday too. A lot of people would see that as poetic justice.
If Boro were to win and condemn the Owls it may spark what seems an unnecessary celebratory glee in the away end that may surprise and sting Wednesday fans. It’s nothing personal, but for a lot of the travelling Teessiders of a certain age that outcome would have a certain historical symmetry and bring a sense of karmic closure.
Boro have twice been relegated at Hillsborough in sickening fashion. The first time they were cruelly sucked into the drop spots for the very first time on the final day; the second they won an acrimonious match but were relegated by results elsewhere with a game to go. Football fans have long memories and are skilled at nursing a grudge – some see it as their live’s work – so there will be a significant section of the crowd that believe “we owe them one.”
The ground casts a shadow over Boro’s recent history – so much so that until Boro finally secured Championship safety with a point against Peterborough, a significant swathe of Boro supporters were adamant they would not make the traditionally well attended trip because they couldn’t bear the prospect of a third Hillsborough heartbreak.
In 1989, Brucie’s Boro were still living a football fairy-tale. After climbing out of the liquidation coffin the team of mainly local lads (and Bernie) had swept to two successive promotions playing adventurous football and held their own in the top flight. They spent most of the season comfortably in mid-table Even after a wobble, with three games to go they were still six points clear of third bottom Luton and looked reasonably safe.
But a draw at Villa and a narrow 1-0 defeat at Arsenal left them dangling one point and two places above the dotted line – with Wednesday third bottom. Boro went to Hillsborough knowing that they only needed to avoid defeat. They could even afford to lose so long as fourth bottom Luton didn’t pick up a point at home to Norwich.
Boro went to a bleak and haunted ground just three weeks after the Hillsborough disaster with the Leppings Lane end still taped off and covered with tarpaulin, a ghostly backdrop that subdued the mood and heightened the nerves.
Boro struggled to get to grips with a hectic and scrappy game and although they dug deep they were eventually ground down and the Owls snatched a 1-0 win as Steve Whitton headed home on 67 minutes from a last of five testing corners in succession.
Boro had some late chances to claw back as a Gary Parkinson 25 yard was tipped over, Paul Kerr had a close range effort blocked then Tony Mowbray brought a good save from a bullet header. It was all to no avail.
On the whistle Wednesday fans celebrated scrambling above their visitors to secure top flight survival while deflated Boro – team and crowd – trudged away dejectedly.
BORO: Poole, Parkinson, Mowbray, Pallister, Mohan, Proctor, Kerr, Hamilton, Burke (Kernaghan), Slaven, Davenport. Subs: McGee.
WEDNESDAY: Turner, Harper, Palmer, Pearson, Wood, Madden, Bennett (Jonsson), Fee, Whitton, Hirst, Barrick. Subs: Galvin.
Ref: Roger Milford. Att: 20,582.
Boro were back at Hillsborough in April 1993 as Lennie Lawrence’s side battled in vain against relegation from the inaugural Premier League.
Boro had a decent first half to the season and were in the top half at Christmas but a long second half slither – they had won just one and draw one in 10 away games – had seen them trapdoor dancing for months but it was tight down there and they still had a chance with two games left.
Boro went to Hillsborough needing to win while also hoping rivals Sheffield United lost at rock bottom Forest. That would put the teams level going into the final fixtures.
And Boro did their bit. They attacked from the off and won a bad tempered game 3-2. They took a commanding lead with goals from Willie Falconer, Jamie Pollock and John Hendrie then stood firm as Wednesday – including soon to be Boro assistant boss Viv Anderson – fought back through Chris Bart-Williams and a Chris Morris own goal.
There was nasty edge to the game after Pollock went down injured and “England international Carlton Palmer” (a phrase that goes a long way to explaining exactly why the national side failed to make the 1994 World Cup) stood over the prostrate player pointing and screaming, accusing him of feigning what was later discovered to be a fracture. Dwight Marshall came on for him!
It wasn’t enough. Sheffield United won 2-0 at Forest to open a three point gap with an unassailable advantage of 18 in goal difference. It’s a funny old game but not that funny.
Here’s the highlights:
BORO: Collett, Fleming, Whyte, Morris, Phillips, Hignett, Pollock (Marshall 57), Peake, Wright (Falconer 17), Hendrie, Wilkinson. Subs: Roberts
WEDNESDAY: Woods, Nilsson, Worthington, Palmer, Shirtliffe, Anderson, Harkes, Warhurst, Hirst (Bart-Williams 46), Bright, Sheridan. Subs: Pressman, Hyde.
Ref: Brian Hill. Att: 25,949
That said, last time were there, in September 2009, we battered the relegation bound Owls 3-1, Gareth Southgate’s side coming from behind with a vibrant display. Gary O’Neil grabbed the midfield by the jugular and Adam Johnson was in devastating form as an emphatic victory took Boro to within a point of West Brom at the top. Surely a Premier League return was a shoo-in. So it’s not all bad. That was also Sean St Ledger’s debut after his cheeky beat-the-window loan-cum-real deal.
MEANWHILE, here’s a chance to get it all off your chest in the Gazette’s end of season big Boro survey. Tell us what you think.
AND, while you’ve got your box ticking head on, fancy filling out a short survey as part of boffinological research into factors influencing dynamic ticket pricing?