ALASTAIR Brownlee: Voice of the Boro.
That was the message on the banners unveiled by the Red Faction before the game as the entire crowd – even the visiting Cardiff fans – clapped in choked, moist-eyed unison.
It was an emotionally charged evening that turned into a fitting tribute to a Boro icon as Boro stormed from behind to create glut of chances in an enterprising display before finally running out convincing 3-1 winners on a big night at the top.
As a poignant clip-reel of his commentary greatest hits rolled on the big screen there was a symphony of applause and chanting in stereo as a tribute to ‘Mr Middlesbrough’. It seemed every single Boro supporter was slapping their hands red roar and chanting with a rare emotional intensity.
It was a deeply moving moment and one that spoke volumes about club and the supporters and the special bond that exists between them. This is a passionate, parochial and tight knit community that is quick to unite in challenging times. And we k now instinctively what those times are. That is when we are at our strongest.
It is hard to imagine any other club where there would be such a sustained public expression of heart-felt sympathy for a matchday microphone man. The support and love for Ali Brownlee has been evident for months.
There have been spectacular spontaneous smart phone light shows and regular chanting since the moment the news of his illness first broke to the emotional night at Elland Road in the immediate hours after his passing when even our bitter rivals were moved to join a dignified display.
And it must be unique for a fans’ group to design and fund and produce banners celebrating a commentator with such obvious affection and respect.
But then, Ali Brownlee wasn’t just any commentator.
“A good friend I never met”. That simple message displayed on a shirt draped among the touching tributes on the Ayresome Park gates summed it up.
For most Boro fans Ali Brownlee was a constant and a familiar companion, a reliable and encouraging presence beside us through thick and thin. Mostly through thin if we are honest. But then that is when loyalty and friendship is most tested. And most needed.
Ali Brownlee provided the soundtrack to a lifetime of matchday memories and has shared the emotional highs and low this team of ours has visited upon us over the years.
More than anyone he reflected the partisan nature of being a supporter.
And that is why even the most hard-bitten Boro fan has been genuinely saddened by his death and moved to public expressions of not just grief but recognition of his very public role as cheer-leader and emotional barometer. He was the archetypal “one of our own” and that is why Boro supporters have united in a show of solidarity.
The build-up started long before kick-off with masses more than usual gathering outside the gates long before kick-off, serenaded by a choir and they paid their respects.
And they paid them again on the designated 56 minutes with a galaxy of terrific twinkling from all sides – again including the away fans – as “one Ali Brownlee” thundered out again and then doubled in intensity and became an urgent “Come on Boro” as the team attacked. And attacked. And attacked. It was an inspirational night.
Ali got another high volume namecheck from fans again in the closing stages of an exciting and enterprising dragon slaying victory. It was a fitting tribute. Boro – his Boro – came from behind with a spirited show of steel and swagger to win well while playing open, attacking football. And they won to relaunch their promotion push.
He’d have loved it. In fact, he’d have gone absolutely mental over it. Imagine the gleeful, triumphant glee and full-volume hyperbole he would have gushed out over that display. We should all take a bit up a bit of that missionary burden. There is a vacuum to fill.
WHAT WE SAID BEFORE THE GAME….
T WILL be a difficult evening. The emotional pre-match build-up will be dominated by the memories of Ali Brownlee with a poignant big screen montage of the Boro cultural icon’s best bits, a Red Faction set-piece tribute and some choked chanting by torchlight.
That could be the emotional fuel that helps power Boro back into promotion form and puts the stuttering season back on track. But it could equally be a distraction. The gaffer believes the team will be fully focused and professional and we must hope he is right. The fans can help in that. They need to make sure that all the myriad feelings are channelled into creating a powerful atmosphere throughout that can drive the team on to victory.
It is a cliche but it really is what he would have wanted.
But it will be difficult on the pitch too. They always are in this division. Cardiff will be fired up after their weekend walloping of form team Brighton that has pushed them to the brink of the play-off places. They will make it tough for Boro. We know that.
But Boro should be fired up too. They have had three weeks and a sunshine break to bed in the January recruits and have shown in flashes in the past few games that if this newly tweaked team can click then it could be potent. The closing stages against Blackburn and MK Dons with Jordan Rhodes on the pitch showed attack intent while at Leeds there were moments of impressive movement, sparks of creativity and a lot of chances.
Of course, Boro didn’t win and for some that is the only thing that matters. End of. But in that game Boro looked a far better, brighter, more coherent and more fluid outfit than the one that laboured leaden-legged through back-to-back defeats early in January.
They looked sharper, more inventive and hungrier. Rhodes added zip. Ramirez added guile. De Laet has good engines. So there were positives to add to what was widely lauded as the best team in the Championship just six weeks ago.
Since then though the top of the table has been squeezed . While some results have gone Boro’s way in recent weeks, none of our rivals has taken full advantage and really punished us and some of the steam has been taken out of Sheff Wed and Brighton, Aitor Karanka’s long-time front-runners have been pegged back to third place by bargain bucket Burnley in what is shaping up to be a familiar summit squeeze.
Boro have had a wobble. All teams have them. And this wobble was not of the order that Hull, Brighton and Burnley experienced earlier on. Hull slithered to fifth while Brighton and Burnley slipped out of the play-off places completely so Boro’s own inertia has not been so strategically damaging, however frightening it feels for fans.
The team remain well placed. And Boro have two games in hand. But it vital that Boro quickly regain upward momentum, pile the pressure on their peers and get themselves in a position so that cashing in those fixtures makes a dramatic difference to the dynamics.
Victory against Cardiff will make the form table look healthier, swing the maths back in our favour and be a platform for a renewed second half title challenge. Success, tonight and in the weeks and months to come, will be the best tribute to Ali.
Usual drill: predict the score and how the game will pan out and then all back here later to recalibrate our expectations and emotions based on the result. I’m putting my daft quid on Jordan Rhodes first goalscorer tonight. If that comes in the first half I’ll go for 2-0.