JOHN Neal’s Boro reign offered spells of hope and excitement book-ended between two moments of FA Cup heartache that are burned on supporters’ psyches.
The former Boro boss died this week aged 82 prompting tributes to a widely respected coach and an old school football gentleman. And it is also an opportunity to reassess an interesting and important time in the club’s history as it approached a crossroads.
Twice under Neal, at either end of his reign, Boro seemed destined for a first ever FA Cup semi-final after being handed home draws as strong favourites. But in his first season Boro failed to polish off second division strugglers Orient in a flurry of missed sitter at Ayresome Park and then were caught cold in the replay and a golden opportunity was gone.
And in his final season Boro again stumbled in the sixth round as they could only draw 1-1 with rock bottom Wolves at home then were punished in the replay losing 3-1 after missed chances and making costly slips at the back in extra-time.
That latter flop was an historic watershed moment. More than 10,000 fans travelled to the game – you couldn’t find a transit van or mini-bus between the Ouse and the Tyne – to share in a historic bloody nose and a collective crushing blow to morale.
In retrospect, we all now recognise that as the day when the club fractured behind the scenes and there was a seismic shift that put Boro on a bleak course towards liquidation.
By the time of the Wolves game team talisman Craig Johnston had already indicated he wanted out and chairman Charlie Amer that he was keen to cash in – and not just on the Aussie. Gates were dropping fast as the Thatcher-engineered recession started to bite with mass unemployment and a 13 week steel strike and other public sector dispute hitting punters pockets and whole swathes of supporters getting “on their bikes” to look for work elsewhere. Meanwhile the costs of the ill-fated white elephant of the gym were escalating – and were being paid to building firms run by Amer’s family – and the club was at a financial crossroads. Amer was preparing the great Ayresome sales as he moved to cash in his chips at Boro and the end of the Wembley dream meant full-steam ahead.
Principled Neal had marked out his own position. He vowed to quit if Amer tried to dismantle the team. Boro got a club record £580,000 from Liverpool in April for Johnston – and Neal carried out his threat and left when the season ended.
The Shildon-born boss, a dignified and measured man, respected and effective coach, perceptive talent-spotter and shrewd man manager, was head-hunted by Chelsea where he went on to become a pivotal figure. He rebuilt at Stamford Bridge, bringing in quality players for peanuts – Kerry Dixon, Nigel Spackman, Pat Nevin – while Boro, who promoted reserves team boss Bobby Murdoch to the hot seat , stagnated and squandered the dividend of a successful seventies. They slowly slithered towards an abyss.
John Neal: Quiet architect of a new era
Ironically at Stamford Bridge, where he is still highly regarded, Neal proved exactly the kind of astute budget shopper that Boro needed at the time. He stabilised a club in financial crisis, rebuilt and took them back into the top flight to establish them just as Boro passed the other way in what looked like terminal decline.
The two ill-fated cup games may dominate the John Neal narrative but they bracket a couple of exciting years when Boro were full of youthful possibility and promise, flair and creativity and when the teased Teesside with a couple of delicious nearly moments – and with a string of cult heroes that endure to this day.
When discussion turns to Boro history, John Neal’s era is often unfairly overlooked – we tend to pick out the periods of extremes – but he was a key figure in what was actually an important and relatively successful four year spell.
He arrived after a golden age when Charlton’s Champions dominated the landscape with a team of heroes that shaped the memories of a generation and set standards against which players and teams are still measured by fans of a certain age.
And he was followed by that bleak period of turmoil and financial chaos as the club went into a nosedive and that coloured all our perceptions of the past and still casts a long shadow of chill fear at what might have been.
But his four important seasons in between were productive and promising. He rebuilt and brought in some good players and laid down what should have been solid foundations for a new brand of exciting football at Ayresome. Had he been supported in his last year rather than face a looming policy of asset-stripping by a chairman who was looking to claw back his investment who knows where he may have taken his team and the club?
Charlton’s side had aged together and the early flourish of promotion and the first two top flight campaigns had faded into a more functional approach: They were solid and dependable and hard to beat but rarely played with the panache of the title winning golden age. They had become widely known as “Boring, Boring Boro”.
Big Jack later admitted he had been at fault for not spending to replace players on the wane – especially up front. He revealed the cash had been there but he turned down the chance to pursue the likes of Andy Gray, David Cross and Paul Mariner. He largely stuck with what he had and the gradually ageing team became enmeshed in mid-table.
Whoever took over from him faced a tricky transitional period in which he would have to replace a revered figure in the dug-out and rebuild a team packed with players who were deemed untouchable by the faithful. He had big shoes to fill.
Unassuming Neal was neither a big name or big personality so seemed an odd choice to succeed brash and colourful Charlton but quickly showed he was a perfect candidate.
He had played at Hull and Aston Villa where he won the second division title and the League Cup before moving to Wrexham as a coach. He built the the third division minnows into a side with a reputation for slick passing football and took them to quarter-finals of the FA Cup in 1974 and last eight of the European Cup Winners Cup two years later. So he arrived with an impressive CV.
He arrived in May 1977 to take on the politically charged task of dismantling a team of heroes and reshaping the style to deliver flair and goals. Over the course of the next few seasons he did just that.
But it was tricky. He had to win over loyalists and that wasn’t easily done. It wasn’t long before “Neal Out” graffiti appeared near Ayresome after some early teething problems – but he quickly won over doubters as he set about his overhaul.
Boro 1978-79: John Neal’s reshaping was well underway
Where Jack had been shy in spending, Neal smashed the ceiling several times. His first signing was gritty midfielder John Mahoney from Stoke for a record £92,000 then three weeks later that mark was shattered again as he went back to former club Wrexham to snap up bustling frontman turned occasional defender Billy Ashcroft for £135,000. The next year Terry Cochrane arrived for £238,000 and the year after Irvine Nattrass for a hefty £475,000. The record had been quadrupled in just three years.
But to create space he sold Graeme Souness for a record fee received of £352,000 in 1978 and David Mills to West Brom for a then English record fee of £517,000 the year after.
Others arrived too: Bosco Jankovic, Micky Burns and David Shearer beefed up the attacking options . Meanwhile a string of youngsters were eased into the team, Mark Proctor, David Hodgson, Stan Cummins and Johnson all becoming firm fans’ favourites and adding creative flair. It was a good Boro side. And the one I first started to watch on a regular basis.
It was a good couple of years of entertaining football as an enterprising Boro side claimed some big scalps, especially at Ayresome, although a familiar vulnerability on the road and tendency to slip up to lowly sides remained.
When they clicked, his Boro side were potent and prolific and would often rattle in the goals: Four against Newcastle, five against Arsenal and again, aided by Terry Cochrane’s iconic bicycle kick, against Swansea, six against Norwich; seven (yes SEVEN) against Chelsea. On song they were a joy to watch.
Boro’s best crack at the league and the European slots – yes, seriously – came in 1979-80. For much of the campaign Boro were flirting with the top six but a concerted spring offensive of just one defeat in nine pushed them right into contention.
A win over Everton at the end of March nudged Neal’s side right up into nosebleed
territory, in fifth spot and just three points off third with a cushion behind them.
Then, having teased us and raised excitement levels to hysteria, they lost four of the next five to fade away before finishing with a typical Boro sarcastic flourish and beating first Liverpool then ended with a 5-0 hammering of Arsenal.
That was as good as it got under John Neal – but at times it was fantastic along the way. Boro played refreshing football, had resilience and spirit and individuals with match-winning magic. Yes, they lacked a bit of consistency and a prolific goalscorer to really make a difference, but then, that is a part of our DNA.
John Neal: Respect.
Here’s some nice words from Terry Cochrane on John Neal.
And here’s some easy listening: a new edition of the podcast – we are knocking them out with industrial zeal – and now with a name, “The Tripe Supper.” That’s a nod to the pre-parmo Victorian foundation of our mighty club, a quirky phrase that will bamboozle outsiders but bring a wry smile to those in the know, and with an easy handle for your “talking tripe” insults and a little hint of steam-punk. Here’s No 3 in which the @GazetteBoro posse talk about John Neal and Jason Steele.
Revealed: the Victorian laptop on which the original Tripe Supper was livetweeted