It started with a hashtag and ended with heartbreak. Middlesbrough’s public courtship of Jelle Vossen during the summer of 2014 set pulses racing as Aitor Karanka looked to add a cutting edge to go alongside the steely defence he’d started to fashion since replacing Tony Mowbray as Boro boss.
It had been under Mowbray when the club had first set their sights on signing Vossen from K.R.C. Genk and an attempt during 2013 to bring the forward in had fallen through amidst competition from Cardiff. With the Belgian international now set on moving to England, a gentleman’s agreement between the Genk chairman Herbert Houben and Vossen was struck, should someone match Genk’s valuation of him.
This is where the fun begins.
When Houben publicly dismissed Boro’s offer of £3.2m as “not enough for a player of this calibre” and hinted that Vossen’s desire to move away was purely for financial gain, it sparked a come and get me plea from Vossen in the Belgian press that morphed into a social media frenzy on Teesside. #FreeJelleVossen was splashed across all platforms at the time and was headline news on Belgian TV.
It wasn’t just the 25 year olds desire to sign for Boro that had captured the hearts of Boro fans though. Vossen had scored a combined tally of 44 goals in all competitions in his previous two seasons and accompanying YouTube clips showed a slick, natural finisher. He looked mint, man. He was a go-to name on FIFA and Football Manager, so had built up a cult following since first being linked with a move.
His potential signing also revived a long dormant buzz in the town. Going into their sixth season in the Championship, Boro were no longer in the race for hot foreign prospects and with rumoured Premier League interest from West Ham, the interest in Vossen was a marker that things were beginning to change at Middlesbrough.
A stand-off between the two clubs ensued with neither side willing to waiver on their valuation of the player. As Kike and Patrick Bamford were brought in, the likelihood of Vossen being added to the forward ranks lessened and the memes began to slowly dry up. However, a loan move was eventually agreed on deadline day and Jelle was free at last!
If Jelle Vossen had any doubt about leaving Belgium for an adventure in England, the sight of a 4000 strong Red Army that greeted him on his debut away at Huddersfield would have been an instant tonic. Boro hadn’t set the world alight in the opening stages of the Championship season, losing 3 of their first 5, but the away end at the John Smith’s Stadium was rammed to see the mighty Boro and our new Belgian star.
Grant Leadbitter’s thunderbastard free kick and cool as you like last minute penalty gave Vossen a winning start to life as a Red in a game that gave him “duck skin” and emphasised the never say die spirit that would blossom during Aitor Karanka’s time as Head Coach.
Of course, in typical Boro fashion, the obsessive pursuit of Jelle Vossen meant that the expectations of the fans for the forward were sky high and it seemed to get to him. He’d repeatedly snatch at shots, belying the ice cold nature that had come across on his various YouTube compilations, overeager to open his account.
It might not have even been that. Maybe Vossen had become institutionalised by his incarceration at Genk and was struggling with the endless possibilities of freedom.
It wasn’t quite a case of the Afonso’s with Vossen as his all-round game was helping the team to attack in a fluid manner that hadn’t been seen in years at the Riverside.
His movement and ability to link up play between the midfield and forwards started to get the best out of Patrick Bamford, who would go on to be the club’s top scorer that season. That was an underrated bromance.
However, the Belgian and the Boro fans were desperate for that first goal as twelve games passed without Jelle hitting the back of the net.
Then, Millwall happened.
It might have been the edgy nature of Millwall away, the cages and steel that surrounds The New Den or it might have been that Millwall just weren’t very good, but Jelle Vossen came alive. The shackles of expectation were no longer holding him down. If Boro fans had freed him from Genk, then Jelle Vossen freed himself that day.
His first goal was certainly worth the wait. Allowing a long ball from Kenneth Omeruo to drop over his shoulder, Vossen turned towards goal and, before the ball could bounce again, pinged a left footed strike up and over the Millwall goalkeeper.
After Bamford had doubled the lead, Vossen pounced on an Adam Reach pass for his second before completing the hat-trick by knocking Bamford’s blocked shot into an open goal.
With his confidence in front of goal fully restored and Boro in full flow, Vossen hit his first goal at the Riverside in a Boxing Day clash against Nottingham Forest. With one collector’s item already marked off with a George Friend goal, a loose ball fell to Vossen on the edge of the area and was fizzed past Karl Darlow on the half volley. It was one of those goals that was proper fucking cool.
That’s what that Boro side of 14/15 was. Proper fucking cool. If the side that eventually won promotion was the Immovable Object built on the foundations of an impenetrable defence, the team that Vossen featured in was the Irresistible Force. Whichever quartet of Adam Reach, Albert Admomah, Lee Tomlin, Kike, Patrick Bamford and Vossen was out on the field, they put smiles on our faces.
Having spent so long in the wilderness of the Championship, cutting the cloth and spiralling out of control first under Strachan and then in the latter half of Mowbray’s reign, that team became the entertainers. From the shadows of mediocrity, they stepped into the light. They brought a buzz back to Teesside and for all of the rhetoric that Aitor Karanka’s sides were boring, Boro’s finest football of the decade was being played then.
You only have to look at the return game against Vossen’s favourite victims Millwall to see that. Each goal is a the result of cutting, quick football. The first, the heralded Borocelona goal, speaks for itself but the second and third were beautiful in their own right. Although it came from a long ball, Bamford’s first touch and close control to flick it to Tomlin is exquisite and Vossen’s tap in came at the end of a marauding counterattack led byGeorge Friend.
The desire that punctuated the ensuing promotion campaign first became evident in that team, too. Without Vossen beating Dedryck Boyata to get a vital flick on the ball in the lead up to Bamford’s goal, do the Champions of England fall at the feet of the Red Army in the FA Cup?
Do they recover from the humbling defeats at Bournemouth and Watford to win three in a row and secure their place in the play-offs and without that resilience does Big Noodle Head ‘Nando Amorebieta snatch the lead in injury time at Brentford in the first leg of the semi-final?
Vossen’s header had put Boro in front before Andre Gray equalised for the Bees and if they’d only brought a 1-1 draw back to the Riverside, Boro may have had to approach that game more cautiously.
They may not have been able to ram Harlee Dean’s claims that “they only score from set-pieces” down the defender’s throats by eviscerating Brentford on a night where the stadium threatened to burst at the seams as the atmosphere shook its foundations.
It was that resilience that made the play-off final so crushing. It wasn’t only the defeat or even the manner of it, as Karanka’s men seemed to still be stuck in traffic at kick-off, but the fact that if Jelle Vossen’s volley had been a fraction lower then Boro would have won that game. It was the ultimate sliding doors moment.
There’s no argument to be made that Norwich would have got back into that game because that season nobody had managed to overturn a Middlesbrough lead. There’d been a handful of draws but not even Manchester City had been able to beat us once we’d opened the scoring.
Everybody knew it and it was a running theme that carried over into the following season. “We score first, we win”. It should have been getting plastered on commemorative cups as our heroes returned from Wembley with Premier League status secured and the party that had started in Trafalgar Square should never have ended.
Alas, we all know what happened and it still stings now.
The club’s failure at Wembley led to Karanka taking the spark of that season and hardening it into what would become his promotion squad. We were going up one way or another but it was going to be without Vossen. With only 9 goals in league and cup, the decision was made to no take up the option to sign him on a permanent basis, with the club instead opting to bring in seasoned Championship talent. Jelle was free again and the hashtag would become the main talking point of his time at Boro
It worked in the end but Jelle Vossen was so much more than 9 goals and a social media campaign. He’d been at the heart of some of the best performances we’d seen since the days of the UEFA Cup runs. Jelle Vossen helped to give Boro their swagger back and he’d been an integral part of the group that helped Middlesbrough to fall in love with it’s football team again.
That’s why he’ll always have a special place in our hearts.
Photo Credits: The Northern Echo, The Gazette, The Times