It’s easy to remember where you were during major events like when the Berlin Wall came down or Michael Jackson died. The older heads amongst us might remember where they were when JFK was assassinated or when Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind.
It’s a little bit harder to remember where you were for certain sporting moments because beer and nostalgia warp your memories. I couldn’t tell you where on earth I was for Usain Bolt breaking the Olympic 100 metre record but I can tell you where I was when Lee Tomlin joined Middlesbrough Football Club. You know, a genuinely seminal sporting moment.
It was transfer deadline day 2014 and all the boys were in a minibus on the way for a night out on the tiles, some crap chart music blasting out of the radio and cans left over from pre-drinks being glugged down. A nice warm up for Donny away the next day. Through the strains of Clean Bandit and Jess Glynne, one of the lads started waving his phone round shouting “We’re getting Tomlin, that lad from Peterborough, g’wan Aitor son”.
Everyone was buzzing, we’d all seen Manish Bhasin and Steve Claridge drooling over Tomlin on The Football League Show and watched him a few times against the Boro too. The boy could play and he was a bit of a loose cannon as well. He had all the makings of a cult hero.
It might seem odd now to have been so excited by a player coming up from League 1 but Tomlin had spent the two previous seasons with Peterborough in the Championship linking up superbly with Dwight Gayle, a partnership that helped to catapult Gayle into that mystical “too good for the Championship, not good enough for the Premier League” bracket. This wasn’t a case of Twitter buzz and YouTube highlights creating a hype cocktail that would go down the drain after a few months: Lee Tomlin was the real deal.
Initially signed on loan to make sure the deal went through, Tomlin became a permanent signing before he’d even played a minute for the team, a result of an extended suspension for getting his third red card of the season for Peterborough shortly before arriving. It was only January. Once he’d found his feet on Teesside, Lee Tomlin added the consistent spark that was missing for a team that was steadily recovering from a miserable 2013.
His first goal sealed the remarkable backs-to-the-wall, come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough 9 man victory against Birmingham, the watershed moment for the Fortress Riverside being built under Karanka. Chasing a bouncing long ball, Tomlin stepped aside to let two Birmingham defenders crash into each other before letting out a cry of “it’s just bantz lads” and knocking the ball past Darren Randolph into the corner of the goal.
That goal would give a brief insight into what Boro fans could expect from Lee Tomlin. He was a cheeky Jack the lad that bordered on the line of arrogant sod while being naturally gifted with the ball at his feet and a step ahead of most players mentally. He was a proper number 10 and we hadn’t seen that for years at Middlesbrough.
Everyone has met a lad like him in Sunday League or down Goals. A lad that is irritatingly good despite looking like he enjoys too many pints and parmos at the weekend. Wanders round aimlessly when he’s out of possession yet comes alive once he gets the ball. The sort of lad you’d kick all over if he was playing against you but he’d be the life and soul of the party if he was your mate. Couple of naff sleeve tattoos. That was Tomlin except he was doing it at the Riverside not the Sports Village.
That season was capped off with a routing of already relegated Yeovil in front of a travelling Red Army basking in glorious Somerset sunshine. Tomlin was at the heart of it, coasting past helpless Glovers and starting off attack after attack in a 4-1 win, grabbing himself a goal in the process. He could’ve played with a pint of the local cider in his hand it was that easy.
Boro had won 6 of their last 8 games that seasons, scoring 14 with an attack spearheaded by Danny Graham. As Adomah boogied away with the Yeovil cheerleaders and the sun came down on another campaign, you wondered what Tomlin and Adomah could manage with some reinforcements. We didn’t have to wait long to find out.
That summer Kike, Jelle Vossen and Patrick Bamford joined the ranks bringing goals and good times as Aitor’s Handsome Reds set about on a promotion charge with a brand of football that reinvigorated the football club and town. It’s sometimes lost in the glory of promotion and the steadfast defensive organisation of the following season but that 2014-15 side played some liquid football and Tomlin was often the instigator with nine goals and ten assists in all competitions.
Whether it was leading four Rotherham defenders on a wild goose chase for the ball before sliding it into the back of the net or firing free kicks past Preston in the cup; Lee Tomlin was having the time of his life.
His most memorable moment in a Boro shirt would come in the midst of one of the highlights of the Karanka era. Already one nil up in the FA Cup away to the champions of England, Manchester City, Boro’s cheeky chappy sent Vincent Kompany to the Trafford Centre to get something nice in the January sales with a drag back turn before hitting the post. Sometimes, I wonder if I’d still be alive if that goal had gone in.
Luckily, Kike would grab a second goal to send Middlesbrough through to the next round and sending Teesside wild. The turn would set off that patented Lee Tomlin “bantz” on Twitter at Kompany’s expense that rattled the Belgian enough for him to seek out Tomlin the following season for a chat as he was warming up for Bournemouth.
January finished with Lee and Aitor picking up Championship player and manager of the month respectively with their sights firmly locked on automatic promotion. Although his overall performances began to drop following the inevitable award curse and national speculation about Premier League interest in the coming summer transfer window, Tomlin was still a pivotal part of the team and provided magic whether he was at number 10 or out to the left side.
There was the video game-esque volley against Charlton where Grant Leadbitter’s corner to the edge of the box was met by Tomlin’s right foot, the ball skipping like a pebble on the water into the net. He followed that by being at the heart of the iconic Borocelona goal against Millwall and delivering a reverse pass to Patrick Bamford for the winner in a crucial away win against Derby.
As damning defeats on the road to Bournemouth and Watford derailed hopes of automatic promotion, there was one last moment of magic to give to the Boro faithful. Having snatched the lead through ‘Nando Amorebieta’s late strike in the first leg, the Riverside was a tinderbox as Brentford rolled into town for a play-off semi-final showdown and despite Harlee Dean’s pathetic “they’ve only got set pieces” claim, the boys in red were on fire that night and like many victories that year it started from the boots of Lee Tomlin.
Taking Albert Adomah’s pass with one touch and ramming it into the top corner with the next, Tomlin sent the Red Army into raptures and into the first chorus of “Que Sera” that wouldn’t finish until the early hours of the next day.
That day at Wembley would end in heartbreak for us all and signalled the end of our number ten’s time on Teesside. The pain of defeat and the failure to win promotion forced Steve Gibson and Aitor to step up their recruitment drive. The arrival of Stewart Downing, Diego Fabbrini and Cristhian Stuani compounded by showing up to preseason with a belly to rival some of the fellas who cheered him from the stands meant that when Bournemouth came calling both Boro and Tomlin were happy to get a deal done.
If his first goal against Birmingham had given an insight into what we could expect from Tomlin, the skinning of Vincent Kompany would sum up the next few years for the Leicester native, full of unfulfilled potential and near misses. The man tipped to be good enough for the top flight barely featured at Bournemouth and was forced to jump to Bristol City, but showed enough promise to earn a move to Cardiff City who were gearing up for a promotion charge.
With a looming court case hanging over his head, stiff competition to get into the team and self-admitted fitness problems Tomlin would fall out of favour and end up being made to train with the youth squad and his mental health spiralled out of control. Thankfully, following a loan back near his home at old team Peterborough United and support from those around him, glimpses of the old Lee are evident on the pitch and he looks in great nick for the Bluebirds. I’d have him back here in a heartbeat.
While he never reached the heights we all expected after that showing at the Etihad, there is no denying that Lee Tomlin was a success at Middlesbrough. The way people still speak about him as a potential signing is evidence enough. He might not have been the hardest grafter in the team and made some debatable choices off the pitch but he could set the Riverside alight on his day. He helped set the wheels in motion for Aitor Karanka’s Handsome Reds and epitomised the changing of the times for the club.
Sweet dreams are made of Lee, who am I to disagree?
Photo Credits: Teesside Live, Hartlepool Mail, MFC, Action Images