MY FAVOURITE game. Maybe. Probably. Possibly. Probably. I’m on a nostalgia trip right now so the gritty dues serving nights on the Holgate are edging the easy if undeniably brilliant glories of Cardiff and Europe at the moment.
And of all the fantastic nights on the Holgate, this was the best: struggling Boro beat title chasing Aston Villa to book an unbelievable first ever trip to Wembley. It may only have been the ZDS Cup but so what? It was Wembley. We were going to Wembley. Fantastic. Even now, 20 odd years later, I still shudder with the memories of that night.
What a night. We EIOed and “que sera sera-ed” pretty much non-stop after Nookie’s goal. Grown men cried. Tough, cynical dockers and steelworkers in donkey jackets and everything. A big group of us were broken up, pushed and pulled and thrown in all directions by the eddy of the Holgate surge. We were hugging strangers, Losing money and all dignity in the scrum. The Old School good natured invasion on the whistle was the last time I was on the pitch in an unofficial capacity. It was great. Bizarrely I told Peter Davenport he’d had a great game. He had. How crazy was that?
Then, hoarse and euphoric, a big gang of us – plus a group of strangers bonded by a once in a lifetime experience of emotional melding and dreams coming true – did a noisy conga all the way up to the Empire just in time for last orders, got big sloppy kisses off a tear-streaked Frankie Bam Bam outside the Boro fish bar and finished off in the Speakeasy chanting “All the Geordies Went To Rome” … brilliant.
Watching that video now what stands out? Bernie’s goal.., what a poacher. How much would he be worth now? How ragged and frantic it was at times but how attack minded the team was? How few replica shirts there were in the crowd. How few old couples and families there were? How few people were sat in stony silence (even though the team were in danger of relegation back to the third division and some of the football in recent weeks had been dreadful)? How many big gangs of ecstatic teenage lads were going mental without being taken out by hi-vis SWAT stewards? What a fantastic time the fans were having despite the fences, the primative open air toilets and the rubbish facilities?
I’ve been watching a lot of old footage over the past few weeks, the celluloid gold of old TyneTees weekly high-lights footage from 1986 onwards on DVD. That and the joyously amateur “Marching On Together”, an in-house cash-in behind the scenes at Ayresome video documentary celebrating Lennie Lawrence’s promotion to the Premier League. It is delightfully low on budget and production values but high on nostalgia (you can see it here in bite-sized bits on YouTube)
It shows a different club, a different world. Expectations were lower, yes. And Ayresome was an often half empty crumbling antique. But everyone seems far more engaged, animated and aware of their importance to the whole. There are a lot of references to the still smarting sting of liquidation – there were still players there who experienced it – and it is quite clear that team, board and fans were regarded as equal partners in the great escape. Back then we really were ‘Marching On Together’.
For all the epoch-shaping glitz and glamour of multi-million pound star names, the status bestowed by the Premier League and the historic validation and joy of Cardiff and Europe, it is those bedsit days of bovril and the Power Game that remain the cultural touchstone of a generation.
A generation that remember when the match was a vibrant collective experience of like minded loyalists dissolved into one heaving mass rather than an alienating portion controlled entertainment to be packaged and consumed as passive individual customers welded into their own seats with the ever present threat of being chastised if you can not control your emotions.
There is a strong wave of frustrated nostalgia surging through football fans nationwide right now. The sanitised and soulless all seater experience, the unjustifiable madhouse economics of the game – It costs £20 to watch games in League Two! That’s twice as much as most Bundesliga games! – and the hopeless institutionalised protection racket of the Premier League have turned legions of loyalists away from the game they love. And it is not just at Boro.
A frustrated Leicester fan – the editor of the fanzine and high profile local media presence… their Rob Nichols in fact – has this week being getting a lot of hits and retweets in cyber-space (and a lot of abuse too it must be said) after admitting that his kids were immune to a game that as a child had struck him as an inescapable and virulent chronic infection. And, he said, he was starting to share their complete indifference to a cold commercial enterprise that had lost it’s narcotic appeal and offered little in the way of entertainment. It had become a chore. It was boring.
Plenty of people feel that way. Average teenage millionaires swagger through games and through life surrounded by sycophants and completely unaware of the existence of the people who pay their wages, totally divorced from the sacrifices that supporters still make to follow their team. Feral, feckless superstars flaunt their wealth like a tasteless tattoo in lives and cribs that echo those of gansta rap stars, and that is just about bearable because they deliver on the pitch – but a legion of lesser lucky over-paid under-achievers ape that behaviour without the mitigation of success or any sense of embarrassment at sub-standard performances. That is rubbing supporters noses in it.
And that as much as anything is why crowds are collapsing. Alienation. Sit down, shut up, give us your money. You can only wave that thing on an ‘official flag day.’ Orchestrated music directing empty Pavlovian celebration. Maverick fans who are trying to spark an unendorsed atmosphere surrounded by menacing and over-eager prefects waiting to pounce…. Supporters are being denied an active role in the game they love and which they alone nurtured through the dark days, a game which has always flourished because it has put the passions of the crowd at the heart of the match day experience.
That’s why we went. To be part of a collective event. Not because Billy Woof, Garry McDonald or Paul Sugrue were dream-weavers who held out the prospect of success but because being part of the crowd could be an electric and uplifting emotional experience.
And even if it wasn’t so electric on any particular day it was still a place where you could have a laugh, be sarcastic and scathing. It was cheap and cheerful and a rite of passage for working class men that linked them to previous generations who shared the same cultural DNA and the same experience. We were united in pride, passion, identity, history – and in those days when the ZDS was a meaningful trophy and the height of our aspirations, relief at the escape from the nightmare of possible extinction.
The dynamic unity in the crowd and the tangible link between it and the team in those years that followed liquidation transcended whatever happened on the pitch. It was brilliant. And narcotic. And energising. That powerful unity – between fans and between fans and the club – was what was important.
Without that, what is left? Skill, excitement and success? With the sheen of top flight glamour gone – and with it the relentless TV promotion – what is left is a vacuum. A disconnect. An alarming alienation that has left many fans cynical and remote from what should be a vibrant symbiotic relationship.
It is rebuilding the crucial link between crowd and team that is the real task of clubs like Boro as much as regaining a place on the Premier League gravy team. And it will be harder. It can’t be bought.
- Eagle eyed viewers will notice this is a repeat. Another chance to see a classic cut from the archives. That is what big media organisations do to fill screen time while all the executives are away in Tuscany. I am not being that cynical. I did actually plan a series of
pieces on fan engagement over the summer before my enforced absence.
After the club melted a bit and opened a dialogue with the Gazette and fans’ groups last season it is important to push forward a reforming agenda. There is not much more movement possible on price (Boro are among the cheapest in the Championship already and the gate income is vital if the club are to compete) but as we all know, price is not necessarily the most important factor: value for money stems as much from results, the style of what is delivered on the pitch and the less tangible enjoyment factor.
I’ll be drawing up a shopping list of “fan engagement” suggestions and ideas to take to the club over the next month or so and I’m looking for your ideas for simple, easy win, low cost-high return activities that can help rebuild emotional bridges.
I’m thinking of simple things like players hand-writing birthday cards for junior season ticket holders, players adopting school teams and taking coaching or assemblies, open training sessions, stewards being more “customer focussed” and less security minded, fan imput into tarting up the concourses, launching supporters’ clubs in the hinterland towns, regular and more honest communication with broad based fans’ groups. You know the sort of thing. Get your thinking caps on.