A YEAR ago traumatised Teesside was recovering from yet another Wembley heartache.
A fatal freeze on the whistle left a sluggish side powerless as they slumped to a 2-0 painful play-off defeat to Norwich as fans stood nauseous and numb and trudging away from the national stadium in stony silence. Again.
The layers of collective pain laid down by successive finals failure is part of our historic burden and feeds into the corrosive ‘typical Boro’ narrative. Four trips to the Twin Towers and one march to the Arch, and only once have Boro been ahead in a game – after Fabrizio Ravanelli scored Boro’s only goal at the ill-fated arena to nudge us ahead of Leicester in the 1997 League Cup.
And then we blew it through Bryan Robson’s lack of ‘game management.’ We have contrived a variety of self-inflicted wounds at Wembley and the mental scars are still fresh.
But a year ago today against Norwich felt like the worst of all. It really hurt. Mainly because we expected to win. We weren’t emotional prepared for defeat. It stung.
Boro fans had set up a boozy basecamp in Trafalgar Square to party deep into the night ahead of what felt like an inevitable victory and a hard-earned Wembley redemption. Tens of thousands of confident Teessiders had swamped the capital in red with barely a yellow shirt to be seen. We had all seen the Neil Grainger #Believe videos. We were playing a team we had already beaten twice. What could possibly go wrong?
On the day the team arrived late after the coach got caught in traffic and then stalled from the start, as revved-up Norwich hit top gear in a blistering early spell and left our dreams up on bricks in a lay-by.
Simmering skipper Grant Leadbitter stood alone and glowered as Norwich went up to collect their prize and celebrated and he studiously soaked up the pain ready to use it as fuel for the next big push but fans were all left numb and broken.
But was it for the best? Seriously. Was that damaging defeat a double-edged twist of fate that could actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise?
There is an argument that Boro going up at Wembley last May would have been a year too early. It wasn’t an argument many were making as we retreated red faced in shocked silence. But now, in the warm glow of this term’s promotion party – and with demoralised Norwich (featuring fringe figure Patrick Bamford ) passing the other way after a long fruitless battle against relegation, the argument seems to have more substance.
Twelve months ago the team was under-prepared, the foundations were not strong enough, the squad just fell short of quality and experience needed to survive. Yes, we would have spent but had we gone up then we may have lacked the market muscle to strengthen in every department in the way we now all accept we need to. And the way our opponents failed to do despite trying. We may have struggled. We may have “done a Norwich” and been relegated after a long powerless season of flailing.
Right now we may have been looking at regrouping, rebuilding morale and going again in one of the strongest and best resourced Championship line-ups ever. With big spending parachute powered Newcastle and Villa plus Norwich and this season’s play-off pack ready to go again the division will be harder than ever. And we’d know that if we failed to bounce back first time then we could face a long period of cost-cutting, stagnation and recriminations in a scary ghetto of becalmed ghost ships.
Instead, Boro are going into the top flight at the start of a seismic shift in the financial landscape. Instead, Boro have fallen lucky and hit the jackpot. There has never been a better year to get promoted. Or a worse one to get relegated.
After the Wembley sting, Steve Gibson addressed a sombre post-match reception of players and staff and in a short but powerful speech. In it, he vowed that Boro would learn from the defeat and that they would come back stronger, wiser and more determined. And he insisted next time they would go up.
On that he and the team have delivered. And now the club are perfectly placed to ride the wave of history. Promotion this season has catapulted Boro into the world’s top 30 richest clubs and gives them a golden opportunity to become an established part of a global juggernaut.
If they stay up this season, the club will have the bank-busting resources to reshape itself on and off the pitch, can be stable, secure and fit for purpose for a future with unlimited possibility. And even if Boro are relegated they will go down with massive financial firepower and – as the first generation to go down with the mouthwatering new TV deal behind them – a great chance to bounce straight back.
Generally ‘now’ is always the best time to get promoted.
Last year at Wembley that may prove not have been true.