We saw some exciting football at The Riverside stadium, eight goals, stirring action, a roaring crowd and some excellent players. But it wasn’t from a turgid 90 minutes between Middlesbrough and Brighton & Hove Albion. The action was almost 40 years old and was displayed on a big screen before a game that did little to entice more than 13,000 people to revisit the fine ground that is the Borough’s home ground.
The game in question was from October 1974, when Middlesbrough were chasing- would you believe? – the Football League Championship. These were the days when players like Graeme Souness, David Mills, David Armstrong, John Hickton and goalkeeper Jim Platt turned out for Middlesbrough, then managed by Jack Charlton. Never known for their goalscoring antics under Charlton, they drew 4-4 with Coventry in front of almost 26,000 people at Middlesbrough’s 1966 World Cup venue, Ayresome Park.
Middlesbrough left Ayresome Park – a classical football ground with Archibald Leitch stands – in 1995 when the Riverside opened, then the largest new ground to be built in over 70 years. Ayresome Park is symbolically remembered at the new ground, with the old gates repositioned in front of the entrance (in 1986, those same gates were locked as Middlesbrough stared into the abyss of extinction).
The move to the Riverside was meant to spark off a new era, and for a while, it did just that. Middlesbrough reached two Football League Cup finals – in 1997 and 1998 – and the FA Cup final in 1997. They also attracted some star names to their pristine new ground, including the Italian Fabrizio Ravanelli and Brazilian Juninho. These were players who could compare in some way to Borough legends Wilf Mannion and George Hardwick, who are both commemorated by statues outside the ground.
But Middlesbrough were also relegated in 1997. They eventually won their first piece of meaningful silverware in 2003-04 when they picked up the League Cup, beating Bolton 2-1 in the final during its years of exile in Cardiff. Five years later, Middlesbrough were relegated from the Premier and this is their fifth year in the Championship. They’ve shown little sign of returning to the top flight and it would seem unlikely they will challenge in 2013-14.
Grounds like the Riverside belong in the Premier, but they will need more than the 13,000 that watched the game with Brighton to make a credible fist of it at a higher level. True, it was December 14, traditionally a bad time for crowds as Christmas shopping takes grip on the nation, but it was 10,000 lower than the previous home game against Bolton. Sitting in the Tees hinterland, the ground inevitably suffers from the elements, but it is neat, impressively nautical and something of a local landmark – rather like the giant Tees Transporter Bridge nearby.
Inside, the club have made huge efforts to embrace the community. In the area beneath the East Stand, for example, you could be forgiven for thinking you had landed in the giant kiddies playground, all brightly coloured walls, child-like imagery and art supplies for those wishing to colour-by-numbers to pass the time away. And for this particular match, there was a platoon of cartoon characters strolling around, bothering the public and trying their hand at audience engagement. They were later seen on the pitch, dancing to seasonal songs like Wizzard’s I wish it could be Christmas every day. The giant bumble bee looked a good mover.
All of this hinted that the club was prepared to shower its supporters with gifts, but the way the home [and indeed, the away] team performed, it was more “Bah! Humbug” than anything yuletide. Certainly, the error-laden football of both sides and inability to carve-out genuine chances frustrated the home crowd.
The media had suggested this game might offer something a little Iberian, given both managers are Spanish. Middlesbrough’s recently appointed Aitor Karanka and Brighton’s Oscar Garcia know each other well, according to the former’s programme notes (actually one of the best club journals I have seen in a long time), but it was clear that neither has been terribly influenced by the world of Tika-Taka.
Middlesbrough had a couple of familiar faces in their line-up in the form of former Newcastle goalkeeper Shay Given and the hapless figure of Jonathan Woodgate. Whenever Woodgate’s name comes into the conversation it is invariably followed by a shake of the head and words of regret that a once promising central defender never fulfilled his promise. He’s now 33, so his best days are long behind him, but his fitness record thwarted a career that has still yet to reach 300 games. His move to Real Madrid was a disaster, playing just nine games in two seasons. Woodgate is Middlesbrough’s captain, but he didn’t last the 90 minutes against Brighton.
The first half started slowly and barely raised its tempo for the first 45 minutes. In fact, the white plastic bag that blew onto the pitch in the first seconds of the game, and remained their throughout, covered much more ground and with more energy.
Brighton edged the first half, with Ashley Barnes meeting Craig Conway’s cross and heading against a post in the 10th minute. After the interval, Middlesbrough looked a little livelier, but their finishing and passing was, at times, awful. The groans from the regulars became more frequent, more noiser and more resigned. And yet, Middlesbrough had not lost at home since the opening day of the season.
The only goal of the game came five minutes from the end, and there was a hint of controversy about it. Brighton were awarded a corner, although most people could see the ball came off one of their players. The cross from Conway came in and the head-banded Matthew Upson – another central defender with a track record – headed the ball down and into the net. Middlesbrough protested to referee Mark Haywood, but to no avail. It was enough to extinguish the home team’s hopes. The win put Brighton within reach of the play-off zone, but equally, increased Middlesbrough’s discomfort near to the relegation zone.
Middlesbrough are a potentially big club that has never quite made it to the top, although they have flirted with success on several occasions. Not even the briefest flirtation looks possible at the moment, but who knows…who would ever have imagined Cardiff, Swansea and Wigan in the Premier?