Has it sunk in yet? It’s just about sunk in for me. Aitor Karanka is going to be sharing the Riverside touchline with Pep Guardiola at some point next season because we are Premier League. DANIEL…AYALA is going to man mark Harry Kane into oblivion and Jordan Rhodes is going to roll the ball past Petr Cech because we are Premier League and everything that comes with it. It means big money in Steve Gibson’s wallet, big name players plying their trade against us every week and having big crowds back at the Riverside for every home game. I don’t buy into the whole “plastic fan” argument that’ll no doubt rear its ugly head in the coming months. Do you remember what it was like having thirteen thousand fans at the ground for home games because I certainly do and it was horrendous. The Riverside was a lonely place for 25 young lads tucked up in the South East Corner trying to make a difference.
Give me a jam-packed stadium of “part-timers” with a vociferous atmosphere over seven years in the wilderness any day of the week. Having a big crowd creating a stadium-wide wall of noise that is certainly unrivalled in my lifetime helped to drag Karanka’s Handsome Reds over the line on Saturday against Brighton. It was a wall of noise that had its foundation in years of heartbreak, anger and determination. Determination to get this club back where we belong because Christ it has been shit at times.
Strangely enough, it didn’t start off too bad. With Robert Huth at the back, the noncey Pele Adam Johnson on the wing and the enigmatic Tuncay Sanli up top we breezed past these diddy teams that a lot of us hadn’t even heard of before; Swansea City, Scunthorpe United and Doncaster Rovers fell to the all conquering Boro. It was meant to be this easy, we’d be back with the big boys in no time and Gareth Southgate’s reputation as a brilliant young football mind would be intact. Then Huth and Tuncay bailed off to chase throw ins at Stoke. Southgate was gone shortly after too, to make way for the man who would be at the helm for the Boro’s darkest period since Steve Gibson saved the club in 1986. Beelzebub incarnate was approaching and his name was Gordon Strachan.
Gordon Strachan. Even the mere mention of his name sends shivers down the spine of every hardy soul who watched his SPL No Mark FC clump in and out of games and induces PTSD like flashbacks to a cold Tuesday night that saw the Reds torn apart by Charlie Adam’s left foot against Blackpool; a night that saw Gary Taylor-Fletcher run our defence ragged. Gary Taylor-Fletcher, for fuck sake. The worst part of Strachan’s reign was the false hope. Remember when we thought we’d win the league at a canter and Kris Boyd would score 30 because he was good for Rangers? How stupid we were. It turned out that Kris Boyd was a fat pub team forward who would have had better luck identifying rare species of bird than the goal whilst “midfield maestro” Kevin Thomson was held together by phlegmy Glaswegian spit. The era of the Scottish invasion will be one forever looked upon with disdain and gallows humour by Boro fans as we spent an entire year watching talentless, overpaid frauds from north of the border drag us down the table and further into the abyss. Times were bleak and so returned the prodigal son.
Admit it. There is only one thing that could’ve made Saturday even better and that’s if Tony Mowbray had been the man in the Boro dugout. It would’ve been poetic. The legendary captain of the heroic 1986 team coming back to return his beloved local team to the promised land. Football isn’t poetry though. It’s a war and the side with the smallest army and least amount of ammunition never wins the war. Mogga had the unenviable job of trying to secure promotion while also salvaging the SS Sinking Scotsman that the side had become, all on a meagre budget compared to what many Boro bosses had been used to. It was never going to work out in those conditions. There was highs for sure. Barry Robson’s last minute thunderbastard against Hull on Boxing Day one year sent yours truly dancing away into a Northern Soul all-nighter light as a feather. Curtis Main securing a late away win at Derby on Grand National Day on an away trip that would come to be known as “The Day of the Phantom Shitter” in some circles will live long in the memory. We knocked the Mackems out of the cup too and we just missed out on the play-offs.
There was considerable lows too. We were rock bottom of the league for a brief moment during a trip to Preston, we were embarrassed in the cup by a then stinking Burton Albion side and everyone’s favourite comedy club Accrington Stanley. The worst though was Mogga’s last game in charge away at Barnsley. 3-0 down by half time at Oakwell at the start of a season that had only seen Tony Mowbray’s Red and White Army garner two wins from twelve, to go with the collapse of the previous season, the atmosphere was poisonous. The vocal majority had turned their back on our former captain and the fairy tale was in tatters. Don’t mistake it though, Mowbray saved the club from a terminal illness and helped lay the foundations for recovery. He was the guy who brought in Dimi, Gorgeous George, Leads, Albert Adomah and initially tied up Ayala. For that, we’ll always be grateful. Then again, he brought Maxi Haas, Kieron Dyer and Ishmael Miller to the club as well. Guess it was a good thing that there was a hero coming over the Eston Hills.
He came from abroad and his name was Aitor Karanka. With his luscious black locks and fumbling English, you knew straight away that he was the man to lead us out of the forest of the bottom third of the table. He was Mourinho’s best pal and he knew loads about tactics. It didn’t start well against the Leeds scum as Jason Steele got himself sent off in a 2-1 defeat but that game encapsulated everything we WERE and Aitor was committed to making us everything we COULD be. AK steered us calmly throughout the rest of that season, every hiccup being a learning curve for a man experiencing his first few months as a manager making the best of a side that was not his. There were enough glimpses during the Christmas period to tell you that this fella meant business and a blissful weekend soaking the sun up in Yeovil at the end of the campaign as Emmanuel Ledesma pratted about doing bicycle kicks felt like a watershed moment. The good times were on the horizon again as Karanka went to work.
He began to mould Daniel Ayala from Bambi on Ice into arguably the best central defender in Europe outside of the top divisions. Albert Adomah started adding graft to his repertoire of jinky hip movements and Dimi continued to palm away the ravages of time. Aitor, with the help of Steve Gibson’s pocketbook, began to create a team that Teesside could fall in love with and believe in again. Ben Gibson was the local lad done good at the heart of the defence, every clearance and tackle roared on like a goal because he was one of our own. Big Fat Lee Tomlin gave every middle-aged bloke with a beer belly the belief that they could indeed pull on a Boro shirt at some point. Patrick Bamford combined boyish good looks with that incredible knack of sticking the ball into the goal on multiple occasions and Adam Clayton’s dogged determination in midfield let Grant Leadbitter get on with pretending to be Roberto Carlos from set pieces. We went to Man City in the FA Cup and turned over the champions of England in their own back yard. It wasn’t a smash and grab luck-filled giant killing against their academy lads and fringe players either. It was a complete domination of a near full-strength side of billionaire celebrities that could’ve ended 6-0 on the night. We’d torn them a new arsehole and life was mint.
Sadly, life is a bitch, isn’t it? The wheels began to fall off during the spring of 2015 and that villainous prick Ross McCormack ended our chase for automatic promotion when in a fully mental game that saw Dimi head up for a corner in the closing minutes of a game that really…we could’ve afforded to draw. Maybe. We’ll never know. Even then, confidence was high. Karanka’s boys smashed aside pseudo-rivals Brentford in the playoffs, snatching a late win in the first leg before completely burying the Bees at the Riverside. With only Norwich (who we’d taken six points off during the regular season) in our way, the Red Army mobilised in Trafalgar Square the night before the final and we all knew the score. Get the first goal and we’d win. It was nailed on. We drank, sang and danced into the early hours of a night nobody will ever forget. Hungover, we all headed to Wembley, ready for our men to do the business.
They never turned up. Two-nil down inside the first 15 minutes as Ayala reverted back to the mental giraffe of old, our red and white warriors had ran out of fight. There were tears, reassuring arms round shoulders and a steely stare from Leadbitter as Norwich politely accepted their award of top-flight football. Passionless freaks. You could see it in Leadsy’s face though. This wasn’t over, not by a long shot. It was time to dust ourselves off, wipe away the tears and dig in for the biggest fight of our lives. It’s a good thing that’s what we do on Teesside. We fight every day.
As in any fight, money speaks loudest and Karaka went on a trolley dash in the boutique stores of the Premier League. Nude sending, England goal blagger extraordinaire David Nugent came in and wound up the shite from Yorkshire in a brilliant 3-0 dismantling. Stewy Downing came home to a great fanfare and showed glimpses of the boy wonder we all remembered. There was a summer romance with a petulant yet endearing Italian in Diego Fabbrini too. Diego, you’ll always have a place in my heart. Karanka looked close to home to remedy the failures of the previous season as well, further nurturing talent that only needed a nudge in the right direction. Emilio Nsue went from being a bit part utility man to the Guinean Cafu and one of the first names on the team sheet along with Adam Clayton who somehow improved on his stellar first year by transforming into the Nandos Zidane. Like a beautiful, bearded evolving Pokémon.
Somehow, we just stopped conceding goals altogether and we’d nearly always find a way to score. The Riverside went from being a simple fortress into a gladiatorial lions pit, as team after team were savaged by the most efficient outfit in the league. All of the other “big” teams in the league fell at the feet of the Men in Red. Teesside was dreaming of having the league boxed off by Easter and La Bambaring into the Prem with ease. We even managed to wangle January deals for goal machine Jordan Rhodes and creative genius Gaston Ramirez. Oh, Gaston Ramirez. A superb mash-up between man and llama, a Paul Merson for the modern era who could do no wrong as he danced round teams and flicked in majestic free kicks. We better keep him.
Then, the lesser teams in the league began to realise that fighting the lions head on just wouldn’t work but defending for their lives might. Holding up a ten man shield in front of their goal for 90 minutes might keep the lions at bay for long enough to manage one fatal jab between the eyes. We started conceding and Jordan Rhodes couldn’t get into a groove of scoring. Things went downhill fast as we lost at a disturbingly frequent rate to poor sides, we lost everybody’s best mate Ali Brownlee to cancer and Aitor Karanka apparently walked out. With the club seemingly in turmoil, we were manager-less at the Valley as the Boro were embarrassed by Charlton. The “experts” and some of our own support wrote us off.
Biggest mistake they’ve ever made because what do we do best on Teesside? We fight.
Hull were first and they felt the full force of a venomous Teesside backlash. David Nugent nodded in a last minute winner that would ignite a run of six battling victories punctuated with numerous late winners. Adam Forshaw’s scrappy goal against Reading sent the Reds into delirium and Rhodesy got in on the act at Bolton. The league was insight and we drank on the cricket pitches of Lancashire, remembering our mate Ali and planning the trophy celebrations. Of course, we wobbled at the end. There’s always a wobble. It wouldn’t be Boro without a wobble. It was always going to go down to the wire, wasn’t it?
It was a straight shoot out for £170 million and a place in the Premier League. Andreas Weimann had essentially given match point to the Boro, giving us the safety net of knowing “a draw would do” but of course, the entire collective anus of Teesside was nipping. What if we lost? What if we played for a draw, the pressure is on us isn’t it? Brighton have Knockeart and Hemed, they’ll definitely get a goal or two. Every conceivable advantage seemed to be on the Seagull’s side despite all of the cold, hard facts pointing in completely the opposite direction. However, Brighton didn’t have what we have. They didn’t have any fight.
Despite the nerves and finger nail chewing, Boro were promoted the minute the teams came out of the tunnel into a sea of red, into a cauldron of noise. Brighton were never going to take it from us because they hadn’t suffered the type of heartache, anger and years of lost identity that we had. The determination to prove everybody wrong, to prove that Middlesbrough still belonged amongst the elite drove us. The poncey, self-entitled divs from the coast didn’t have that. They didn’t know what it was like to have their club go from the highs of cup wins and European nights to the lowest of lows. They hadn’t seen their club and area stripped down to its bare bones yet keep swinging with the best of them. Brighton plainly and simply didn’t have the Spirit of Teesside. They couldn’t contend with the Infant Hercules.
I’ll never be able to fully explain the feelings that Mike Dean’s final whistle brought on Saturday. It was a heady cocktail of relief and sheer ecstasy, not just for the team but for my mates. Seeing them heartbroken at Wembley was the pits but Saturday made it all worthwhile. There’s bonds that have been forged during these seven years in the wilderness that’ll never die. They’ve made it worthwhile. I’d be one of the “part-timers” without them, no doubt. We hugged, fist pumped and cried even more than we had at Wembley. This was OUR time, the boys were back. We saluted Gorgeous George and Tommy Kalas. We had a special moment with the skipper and we threw shapes with Adomah. Then we got fucking drunk. Absolutely Leadbittered. You think Forshaw was in a state?
It started to sink in on Sunday. Hungover, I relived the entire day back on Twitter and through the Gazette boys. Slowly it sank in. We were back. We ARE back. We’d done it and it didn’t matter how we’d done it, just that we had. Middlesbrough always does it, in the end. We take all the stupid programmes that portray us an unemployment sinkhole of a town, we take the government pissing on our heritage and we come back swinging. We get up and fight because it’s what we do. It’s in our blood and now we’re back. Back to show the elite teams what it’s like to support your local team through thick and thin, back to show everybody how proud we are of our home town and of our traditions. We’re back for Stevie Gibson, for Ali Brownlee and for the entire community. You don’t like it? Unlucky, lads. The Boro are back and we’re not going away with a whimper.
Now, let’s go sign Neymar and do a Leicester. That’d be nice.
Photo Credits: The Gazette, Getty Images