Surreal is a word that gets thrown around quite liberally or at least it used to. Things were “a bit surreal” because someone you vaguely knew had an awkward encounter with a D-List celebrity on the train or you’d seen some of your old school teachers out on the lash for the first time. That’s the type of stuff that used to be surreal. The world we’re living in now is truly surreal.
Whether it’s the sight of people in mile long queues to get a bit of shopping from Tesco, having Saturday nights out via Facetime, making that long walk from the bedroom to the dining room to clock in for the 9 to 5 or simply becoming far too familiar with the four walls of your house; this is surreal.
We’re living through a global pandemic that will be analysed in history classes in a centuries time. There’ll be documentaries critiquing and detailing various countries responses or lack thereof to the outbreak of the virus. There’ll probably be a film where Jason Statham has to take down the Kremlin to recover the antidote. You know Guy Ritchie has already thought about it.
This is in no attempt to trivialise a truly terrifying time as we continue to traverse into the unknown. Thousands of people are dying across the world each day and millions are suffering due to this virus. There’ll be contact details at the end of this for some supportive organisations because even if you haven’t been directly affected by the virus, things are hard right now.
There’s only so much Netflix, negative news and lack of real human interaction that people can take. Some of us are living on top of each other 24/7, having to deal with homeschooling and entertaining the kids without any real respite. Some of us aren’t even able to see close family members and it might sound insignificant in the grand scheme of things but a lot of us are seriously missing football.
Look, it’s nothing to sacrifice to ensure that people are safe, but I ain’t half missing watching 22 other people chase a ball around a patch of grass. As basic as football is when you strip it down to a physical activity, the jovial gentlemanly past time that the likes of the Old Etonians and the amateur sides of the 19th century envisioned it being forever, it’s a way of life for me and millions of others because it is so much more than a glorified 90 minute exercise.
From bemoaning and dissecting another defeat with your mates in the pub after a match, clocking up thousands of miles and a definitive favourite service station from travelling across the country to follow your team, scrolling through Twitter for hours to pick up any tidbits about possible transfers and the endless hope that a Saturday morning brings; football is the lifeblood for many.
Club badges are inked onto the skin of fans, right next to the names of their children. Weddings and holidays are arranged around the football season. Marriages and relationships have began or ended because of people’s dedication to following their team.
Worries and ill thoughts are cast aside once the first whistle blows. Everyone knows someone who “never misses a match” and some of us go as far as acting in a certain way on matchday by only wearing a certain set of lucky undercrackers despite the fact they’ve got holes in and your team has lost 6 on the bounce. That’s how important football is. Not important enough to have the football season concluded behind closed doors because that *isn’t* football but that’s a discussion for another day.
There’s so many things I miss about football from the obvious to the ridiculous. I miss the unbridled joy of seeing Lewis Wing stick one top bins and grabbing hold of my nearest mate to shake him silly before gearing up for an EIO, the sheer elation of victory that can make the next week feel ten times better no matter what and the pulsating chords of a Boro end home or away in full voice sending shivers down my spine.
I miss the iconic shout of “jackpot tickets, only a pound” on the way to the ground. I miss kicking off before a game because Woody’s picked George Saville again, watching him have a worldy then pretending that “I’ve always rated him, me”.
I miss not being able to sleep on a Friday night because it’s Barnsley or Preston away in the morning. I miss getting pissed off with a referee for not giving us a penalty because Ashley Fletcher has fallen over his own feet. I miss having an ironclad five minutes of small talk that can get me through any awkward interactions the next day at work.
I miss George Friend doing his little cut inside and beating his man, even though he’s been doing it for eight years and surely every right back in the league knows it is coming. I miss going on motorway raves to new towns and scenes of battles won previously and the 90 minutes of football getting in the way of a good knees up.
I miss Leo’s roar. I miss calling Mark Page all of the names under the sun because he’s blasting Black Eyed Peas before kickoff. I miss the silent exchange with myself in the bathroom mirror before every home game that it’ll only be one pint after the match, knowing full well I’ll be falling through the front door in the early hours of Sunday morning after spending the night telling the same old stories to the boys. I miss waking up later on with my head pounding, stomach churning, my clothes smelling of smoke and stale lager and not being to wait for next weekend.
I miss football and everything that comes with it.
While there isn’t anything that can replace those feelings and fill that gap in our lives, we’re pretty lucky to be going through all of this with the benefit of technology. Living in a permanently connected world has allowed us to stay in touch, open Virtual Pubs on Houseparty and watch streams of old, glorious matches from our favourite team.
The community and affinity that blossoms from being part of the same fanbase and experiencing the same highs and lows can’t be replicated online but for a few hours, the #BoroWatchalong has offered us all a brief window in which to leave the fear and the worry behind and escape into a Teesside time machine.
Being able to reimmerse myself into glorious Boro moments and watch Zenden kicking it twice, Dimi catching that ball against Brighton to confirm promotion and MASSSSSIIIIMOOO MACCAAAROONE EL GLADIATORE writing himself into MFC history forevermore has been wonderful and being able to talk about it with friends and fellow Boro fans as if it’s a live game has been really fun.
Taking out the nervous energy of those showpiece occasions and being able to appreciate the little things: Fabio Rochemback’s headband, Mark Viduka’s golden touch and Doriva’s little fat arse.
Those UEFA Cup games especially, punctuated by the lyrical waxings of Ali Brownlee, have always been a bit of a safety blanket for me. A sort of break glass in case of emergency way of coping with particularly poor mental health days.
I challenge anyone to listen to Ali proclaiming “And Boro have struck a stake to the heart of Dracula’s boys and it could be Eindhoven time!” without getting covered in goosebumps and welling up. He was truly an artist in the commentary box. There’ll never be anyone like him.
At some point, we will have football back. It may be the first time that we’re all back in the Riverside is to watch those heroes of yesteryear as part of Mikkel Beck’s fundraising match to benefit those in the local community affected by COVID-19.
It’s brilliant to see our former players and the current squad rallying round and supporting the town and the MFC family at such a worrying time and there might not be a more fitting way to restart our footballing life than by celebrating everything and everyone that has made us fall in love with this sport and more importantly Middlesbrough Football Club.
Until then, please stay safe, seek support if you need it and Up The Boro.
Teesside Samaritans 116 123
Young Minds https://youngminds.org.uk/
Photo Credits: Getty Images, REX, Middlesbrough F.C., Focus Image LTD