BARE-chested, arms-linked and bouncing in the South Stand, the Boro-barmy Red Faction made vocal and visible the ‘Spirit of Teesside’ in the Doncaster game.
It was quite a spectacle. For the entire 90 minutes the proud and loud Boro ultras were a performance art collective, full of colour and passion, the throbbing drums a powerful heart-beat of an energised crowd. The Red Faction in their South Stand Kop are now part of the matchday furniture and an impressive sight to behold.
Yet just a year ago they were persona non grata, slated by authorities and fellow fans alike and hemmed in by a ring of fidgety fluorescent bouncers.
What a dramatic change. What a positive change.
The Red Faction display against Doncaster was fantastic and contributed to the box-ticking satisfaction of the night almost as much as the display on the pitch. Goals, tick; attacking football, tick; vibrant atmosphere, tick. All the ingredients were there for a memorable match.
The zealous chanting started long before kick-off and at one point the Red Faction actually drowned out the pre-match music, which as that aural hell goes up to Spinal Tap’s notional 11 is quite some achievement.
With a genuine old school atmosphere building it would have been a perfect time to pull the plug and let the tangible excitement build organically to a natural crescendo as the teams ran out.
Instead Mark Page turned the volume up and unleashed weapons grade Bananarama against unsuspecting civilians in an ear-bleeding cacophony. It was possibly a breach of the UN Charter as a cruel and unusual punishment. That was the only bum note on a night of inspirational singing and chanting from a galvanised ground.
It wasn’t just the South Stand. The North made a bold attempt to make it stereo but they lacked the co-ordination and choreography and hence the concentrated volume of the Red Faction, a group now on a roll showing consistency in every game and looking particular impressive at set-pieces.
There are echoes of the Holgate and the original Boro ultras the Ayresome Angels in their joyful, creative gusto. They go to enjoy the spectacle but are part of it themselves too. In football the atmosphere as much as the action is the product.
The Red Faction started the match by unveiling a big new banner the echoed the Spirit of Teesside and proclaimed: “We Built The World.” Tapping into a proud industrial heritage in front of a national television audience was a nice touch.
‘Every metropolis came from Ironopolis’ may be a bit long and obscure and a bit too Fritz Lang for the Sky Sports demographic.
A couple of goals to the good and the Red Faction really got going. The entire block was stood, many having whipped their tops off, and had linked arms to bounce and chant in unison.
It was the most impressive pre-planned display in that stand since Banik Ostrava arrived on Boro’s European debut and left home fans gob-smacked with their relentless chanting even in defeat. All it lacked was the post-interval balloon popping. Maybe that’s in the pipeline.
The Red Faction also led the poignant second half chanting that ‘Mowbray is king.’ It would be hard to celebrate the Spirit of Teesside without hailing the man who has most epitomised that phrase on the pitch and without acknowledging his role in building the team that was ripping Doncaster apart.
In front of the press box there were a clutch of pre-teen girls who had clearly only turned up to squeal at parmo-powered prince of pop James Arthur at half-time.
By the end they were joining in the chants, giggling as they came to terms with the fist pumping swagger of the EIO and badgering their proud dad and pointing: “Next time we come can we go over there?”
The admirable enthusiasm of the Red Faction is unwavering and contagious and not in any way diminished by either the current league table or the status of the opposition. That gives hope for the future. The building blocks are in place for a renewed sense of optimism among fans. We just need the results now to light the fuse.
Just last week Steve Gibson was moved to publicly praise both the Twe12th Man and Red Faction – by name – for their enduring and unstinting support through what has been a difficult 12 months for Boro.
What a difference a year makes.
Not so long ago the Red Faction was an embattled group isolated in the South-east corner surrounded by hi-viz stewarding, often man-marked one-to-one with every out-break of celebration sparking an anxious ripple of fluorescent orange and yellow fidgeting.
They were on the naughty step, under surveillance and out in the cold.
They were at loggerheads with the club and watched closely by the police.
Every new flag was forensically tested for its terrorist potential.
Every game a tense Cold War stand-off.
It seemed at one point last season as though the authorities were preparing a purge.
Admittedly the wilder elements of the young group did themselves few favours when they were free of the confines of big ground CCTV security as they whipped out red flares at Burton and at North Riding Cup games.
And some of the provocative seventies retro-chanting at the bemused travelling fans across a very narrow sterile area and the self-styling as “ultras” – a word heavy with hostile intent, not least because of our events in Rome – had the police on edge.
But basically, far from being a proto-firm they were daft young lads who just wanted to make a racket and enjoy the game more intent on making banners than making trouble. They just wanted to be part of the action. They wanted to enjoy the match, not just what was happening on the pitch – which wasn’t always that inspiring – but the whole experience.
They naively believed that pro-active supporting – chanting, singing, flags and banners – could add to the fun. And they were sneered at for it. As much by older, more cynical fans as the authorities. And they were estranged from the safety authorities who couldn’t see the essence of their passionate support and instead saw a policing issue.
But now they are very much welcome. They are lauded by the club. They are part of the Boro family and seen as a vital ingredient in the match-day mix.
How did that happen then?
Over the past year there has been a marked thawing of attitude on both sides that has created the conditions for compromise and a new relationship. It is part of a wider move by the club to build bridges and listen to supporters, a detente that came from a series of meetings brokered by the Gazette on ticket prices, the configuration of the ground and ways to generate an atmosphere.
The summits ushered in a series of cut-price ticket offers – and a free pint – as an immediate attempt to boost crowds but the switch of the Red Faction to the South Stand and the creation of the Generation Red family zone were more concrete long term results.
The family zone has been a resounding success. With a season ticket a parent and two kids can go for a fraction under £20 which is ridiculously good value. It is cheaper than the pictures and a far more effective brainwashing technique.
But it could be the relocation Red Faction which proves to be the engine of a new atmosphere.
Chairman Steve Gibson laid it on the line: We love your passion but we can’t afford to police you. Drop the posturing and provocation and we’ll move you to a prime site behind the goal; keep it up and you can come and tell me which player to sell.
Initially they were pencilled in to move slap bang behind the goal but safety chiefs were nervous about the possibility of pitch incursions and the newly conciliatory Red Faction offered to step up a tier to allay those fears and in return were given a lot of leeway. It has helped that there is now much more distance between them and the away fans. They are far more focussed on supporting their team now and less on goading the opposition. Although the odd bit of well timed and sharp barracking is still part of the repertoire. And very funny.
That stand is now a de facto safe standing experiment with the group regularly up for long spells going through a routine. And overt EIOing. And now with rarely a single hi-vis incursion to be seen. Although the police box is immediately behind them to keep an arms length vigil.
Now both sides have grown into the relationship and have regular productive meetings to discuss the practicalities whenever the fans suggest a banner or other display. There is an understanding there now, a trust. The instinct of the club is to say ‘yes’ to a proposal and then work out the practicalities rather than to say ‘no’ and ignore any backlash. And the instinct of the Red Faction in return is to only propose stunts that are workable.
Earlier this season when the teams came out they were greeted by a storm of Argentina 78 style ripped paper confetti… but only after they had agreed before hand and offered to stay behind to sweep up.
The arrangement is working well where it matters – on matchdays.
The Red Faction are creative, persistent, loud and funny and at times as much fun as the action on the pitch. The new ‘Boys End’ Kop is going from strength to strength as it inspires and sucks in more like minded individuals every week.
And there is room around them to grow now. The club are allowing season ticket holders to switch to that area – and even allow a one- match taster before you decide. And, unless you’ve got kids, walk-up prices are the cheapest in the ground.
The clubs should even consider targeted ticket offers for that specific area every now and then to keep the momentum growing.
This could be the start of something good.
*****THIS is the Infant Hercules ft Chantz Massive remix of this week’s Big Picture column.