365 Days Later

If anything can sum up the past twelve months, it’s the last goal that was conceded in front of a crowd that wasn’t socially distanced at the Riverside Stadium.

In the dying minutes of a midweek game that came at the end of a terrible start to the new year, Jonathan Woodgate’s side were looking to record their first victory of 2020.

The Boro hadn’t won in their previous 9 league games and had managed to come from behind to lead Nottingham Forest 2-1, with two goals just before half-time from Rudy Gestede and Lewis Wing after Ryan Yates had put Forest ahead earlier in the game.

Having already faced numerous warnings of what was to come if they didn’t tighten their defence, Boro failed to clear a Nottingham Forest corner and the ball looped off Gestede and back towards the goal.

What should have been a routine collection for Aynsley Pears, the proverbial food and drink for a goalkeeper, became a calamity as he got himself tangled up with Lewis Grabban.

With Grabban backing into Pears, the forward flicked the ball into the net to snatch the equaliser as the Boro keeper sat on the floor dumbstruck, joining his teammates in waving hopelessly to the referee and linesman for assistance and find someone else to blame for fluffing another opportunity to get things right.

Paddy McNair might have been able to clear it off the line but had already began to point the finger before the ball was in the net.

Sound familiar?

As aspects of another national lockdown slowly ease with the return of all students to school next week, it’s hard to believe that a full year has passed since the majority of us stepped foot in the Riverside. It feels like a hell of a lot longer in some ways. A lot has changed in those 365 days. Jonny Howson used to have a short back and sides, you know!

Those first few weeks of lockdown were almost a novelty. Everyone was either off work or doing the bare minimum while “working” from home. The sun was out, the bevs were being sunk and stocks in House Party must have boomed but even that changed.

Virtual pub quizzes fizzled out and were replaced as was Boro’s manager. Jonathan Woodgate, after a Mike Bassett fag packet team were slapped up by Swansea, was let go by the club in a bid to halt the slide towards League One.

Dovetailing with the relaxation on restrictions and a few weeks of “Eat Out to Help Out” inspired normalcy, Neil Warnock arrived on Teesside to instil hope in the fans and pull the team out of the relegation fight, although the long-term effects of Warnock have been far superior to that of Summer 2020.

As the country got used to the new normal, the Red Army had to cope with change as heroes like George Friend and Adam Clayton left and Daniel Ayala turned his back on the club in our hour of need.

With Boro’s “Golden Thread” thrown into the bin, the club mirrored the government in performing a complete U-turn on their intended plans for the side and new heroes would emerge in Duncan Watmore, Anfernee Dijksteel and Marc Bola. Yeah, no I wouldn’t have believed it this time last year, either.

It wasn’t just Boro that underwent change. As new habits and ways of working were formed across the nation, with the wearing of masks in public and conducting team meetings over the internet becoming second nature to many, fans had to adjust to how they followed their team.

Season tickets were replaced with matchday passes and Sky subscriptions while football went from a pastime to all of the time. An already swollen and saturated smorgasbord of THE BEST LEAGUE IN THE WORLD EVER spilled into a a daily soap opera with all Premier League games being aired on TV.

It was the right move but elite football has never been so exposed as a follow the formula, live representation of stats and systems being crunched and acted out by well-oiled cyborgs and there’s a few benefits of watching football at home. There isn’t a mass of people to dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge around to get a beer when you’re at home. It’s warmer, as well. That’s about it.

Even that isn’t really a positive. I miss deciding how many layers to throw on for a game and whether it’s the right time to sound the big coat klaxon. The weather was a nice bonus over the weekend but it would have been miles better if I could’ve broke the shorts out and dazzled the Riverside with my ghostly white pegs.

My nose doesn’t yearn for the smell of burger vans, a cliché BT and Sky will trot out as they “welcome” fans back and proclaim that the game belongs to us despite only caring now that the lack of supporters is devaluing their product, but I can’t wait for that first, sticky yet sweet inhale of a packed pub on an autumnal afternoon.

I can fry onions at home but nothing can replace that smell. You know the one, as lager, smoke and the poorly judged temperature of the heating mingle with the crispness of a September breeze.

Working from home for nigh on a calendar year has eliminated tedious office small talk but I can’t wait to get back and be dishing out Boro nods in concourses across the country to blokes whose names I don’t know but are as equally part of the furniture in my personal matchday experience as the ninety minutes of play.

As work and the weekend bleed into one another, with my office being the same room in which I currently curse misplaced passes on a Saturday, the thought of having hope and a chance to escape at least once a fortnight is keeping me going through this current lockdown.

The thought of being able to put my mates in a headlock and furiously fist pump as a goal flies in, instead of a half-arsed “gerrin” while trying not to knock over a mug of coffee. Being able to shout at the ref for yet another blatant mistake and joining in the pulsing boom of the Red Army in full flow without worrying about my neighbours.

The hugs and back slapping when the latest member of my unofficial extended family turns up, the in-person catch ups instead of being religiously strapped to WhatsApp. Finding out how my mate’s week has been from them not through their Instagram story. Getting a pair of jeans on instead of slouching about in joggers. Kicking off about the price of a pint on a London away or the quality of the ones in the ground even though I’ve barely been out of the house in a year.

A large part of my happiness being dictated by eleven men in red, not government officials and scientific experts and finally being part of something again. Something bigger than being a statistic, being another dot on the R Rate.

My season ticket has already been renewed in the hope that at the end of the roadmap, we’ll all be there in August.

Ultimately, after being stuck in the house for a year, 365 days later – I can’t wait to go home again.

Photo Credits: Middlesbrough Football Club, Teesside Live, Getty Images

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