THE LAST time that particular route was jammed with Boro fans, it was the victory parade after the Carling Cup triumph after Cardiff. It is fitting then that the Red Army lined the same streets to celebrate Alastair Brownlee, a presence so intricately woven into the personal and collective memories of the town.
Fitting too that the day was marked by a public display of emotion, because that is what Ali conveyed so powerfully in some of the proudest and most intense moments in the lives of many Teessiders.
Fans turned out in their thousands to show their respects at the Riverside in scarves and shirts and at Ayresome Park, along Linthorpe Road and Borough Road for the public procession of the cortege. Lifelong loyalists and the next generation joined in quiet contemplation and respect for an iconic figure woven into the fabric of the community.
It was as close as Middlesbrough can get to a state funeral.
It was an amazing turnout after what has been a testing and emotional week that has shown our community at its best.
Middlesbrough is a passionately parochial town – in many ways it is just a big village – and in many ways over the years that has been a weakness. But during dark times of economic turmoil or a human tragedy that touches us all, it is also a source of great strength.
We are quick to unite and pull together and show exactly how tight knit a community we are. We have seen that over the last few days. The reaction on every level to the passing of Ali Brownlee has been incredible.
Middlesbrough supporters have done themselves proud at what is really quite a shocking and saddening moment. They have been compassionate, supportive and celebratory in just the right measure and their overt displays of emotion have been quite moving.
And the public process has helped everyone come to terms with the loss of a massive cultural presence, someone everyone regarded as a friend.
The sincerity and intensity of the public shows of appreciation for him have been quite staggering. The smartphone torchlight tributes, the chanting and fan-funded banners unveiled at matches have been visually striking and deeply moving and have caught the imagination and even prompted support from opposition fans swept up in the moment.
On Teesside we may take it for granted because it is what we do, but outside observers must be taken aback. Other fans who have seen our display – even Leeds, as harden and hostile as they come – were moved to join in. And that was much appreciated. And press men from other clubs and the nationals have been left gob-smacked by it.
It must be unique for a football crowd to hail en masse the name of a local radio commentator. That speaks volumes not only about Ali Brownlee and the esteem he was held in, but of the crowd itself. In Boro we really are all in this together.
The club have done themselves proud too. They have judged their reaction to the situation perfectly and made the stadium the focus of the public mourning in a way that has given the family time and space.
For them Ali has long been part of the furniture. He has been a familiar face at Ayresome Park, the Riverside and Rockliffe for decades and the chairman and the manager were quick to say in touching terms that Ali was a great supporter and a great friend of the club. Aitor Karanka is a Basque. He understands that football is a vehicle for identity.
They reiterated the simple and striking message: He’s one of our own.
The old Ayresome gates have become the symbolic centre-piece of the supporters’ tributes while the pre-match build-up before the Cardiff match and the kind words in the programme were lovely.
And the visit of the cortege to the Riverside – and the presence of Aitor Karanka, his staff and the players – was a nice touch too and helped fuse the public and private elements.
The way the week has unfolded and the unconditional outpouring of love and respect at matches and along the route of the cortege towards Ali must have been great comfort for his family.
The service for Ali at St Mary’s, the family Church in Acklam where he was married to Wendy, was packed too with his nearest and dearest plus many friends and colleagues and a host of familiar Boro faces past and present from over the years.
George Friend, Jonathan Woodgate, Stewart Downing and Ben Gibson were there. David Hodgson, Alan Peacock, Gary Pallister, Craig Hignett, Curtis Fleming, Gary Gill, Bernie Slaven… all people who knew and loved Ali Brownlee the man and regarded him a warm and staunch friend.
Gordon Cox, whose life, career and love of Boro were entwined with Ali’s said some beautiful – and very funny words – in warm personal tribute to his great friend .
And there were some powerful and appropriate moving musical moments with Joe Hammill from Cattle And Cane doing a breath-taking rendition of Infant Hercules and there were also the strains of Chris Rea’s Steel River at the end of a moving service.
It was a service that spoke of Ali’s intense pride in his family, his football club and in the Teesside that he loved.
I’m sure he would have been proud too at the way the community he championed so passionately has expressed itself over a testing and tragic week.
And I hope his family can take comfort from and pride in it too.