I have traveled south to see the Lads play Middlesbrough on no less than eight occasions and have yet to see a victory!
Before I go any further be reassured – the hex I have on my team at ‘Boro has been negated as the rescheduling of the game to a Monday night for Sky TV has undone my attendance… I shall be watching on the box.
The forthcoming game did get me thinking about previous encounters I have witnessed. Four of the eight games have ended in 2-1 defeats, close hard-fought affairs.
I witnessed a cracking 2-2 draw in 94/95 season. Craig Russell scored two well-taken goals, Don Goodman was at his pacey/bustling best as ‘Boro struggled to cope with our speed on the break. We could have easily won that game, despite having to rely on a man-of-the-match performance from Tony Norman to keep out the team that would finish as Endsleigh League One champions at the end of that season.
One absolutely raucous affair both on and off the pitch in February 1981 saw Joe Bolton sent off for nodding at Terry Cochrane, whose dive would have won Tom Daly a gold medal!
Boro won that game 1-0 and their goal was scored by Easington lad Graeme Hedley, who had undoubted talent but never quite realized this.
As Joe left the field following his red card, he was giving as much stick to the Boro fans as they were giving him… they seem to have forgiven him as he signed for Boro at the end of this season and went on to play 59 highly regarded games for them, coming toward the premature end of his career.
The game that I remember most, however, came the following season. It was November and we were coming off an 11-game streak without a victory. We’d been absolutely outplayed at Roker Park the week before, where a rampant Manchester Utd had beaten us 5-1.
Despite our poor results and the setback in the previous game, there was a feeling of tangible hope on the packed bus as it headed south. Whilst our results had been poor, Alan Durban’s team had spells in every game I had seen where they had played attacking/promising football.
Unfortunately, they had not put a full 90 minutes together since the opening two games of the season.
Despite the horrendous scenes outside the ground at the previous season’s game, we had sold out the away end, the attendance of only 21,000 perhaps reflected the concerns of the average fan that it might all kick off again. Thankfully, the Police were very well organised, and it was much quieter outside the ground.
Middlesbrough had Joe Bolton lining up for them, against Sunderland for the first time. He was given a hero’s reception from the Sunderland fans as the chant of ‘Joe Joe Joe Bolton‘rang out just before kick-off.
Boro also had a young David Hodgson on the bench, a rising young star, he would later be signed by Len Ashurst in August 1984 having seen a dream move to Liverpool go awry.
When Alan Durban had taken over in the close season, he had captured the very promising Ally McCoist and had bolstered our defense with Scottish international full back Iain Munro, most remembered for his tough tackling, but he really did possess a fine pass and an ability to be in the right place at the right time.
These two augmented by the breakthrough to the first team of Barry Venison, Nick Pickering and Colin West, made up what looked like a very promising young squad, alongside the likes of Jeff Clarke, Shaun Elliott, Gary Rowell, Gordon Chisholm and Stan Cummins.
Two other players in the squad, Ian Bowyer (who had suffered a troublesome knee injury shortly after arriving) and Tom Ritchie (who never seemed to fail to score against us) were it’s fair to say struggling to make an impact.
Barry Siddall and Chris Turner were enjoying a mighty battle for the goalkeeper’s jersey at this time, (both were exceptionally good, but for me, Chris Turner was one of the best keepers I have seen between our sticks).
The game kicked off and quickly developed into a typical derby, with tackles flying and our youngsters showing up well in the early skirmishes. As we began to play our way more into the game Boro resorted to some particularly niggly and nasty challenges.
One of these challenges caught Jeff Clarke, who responded to the tackler with a well-timed right hook. My heart was in my mouth as I thought we were going to have a man sent off in two consecutive games.
Thankfully, it was well-timed in that the referee did not appear to see this, and Clarke got away with it. This evened out what had happened the previous season, when the referee had been completely hoodwinked by Cochrane’s antics resulting in Joe Bolton’s red card.
Despite the dearth of goalmouth chances, we probably shaded this game, and I came away feeling we had turned a corner with a very solid 90-minute performance.
Siddall in goal and our defense of Munro, Venison, Clarke and Hindmarch had all but shut out the Boro attack. In midfield, another non-stop performance by the hard-working Elliott had been ably assisted by Pickering and the impish Cummins on the flanks, as well as Bowyer who had one of his better games for us that day (he would return to Forrest in January of that season).
Even up front, McCoist and Ritchie (who returned to Bristol City following a loan period at Carlisle United in February of that season) gave us a hint of a partnership forming and hope for the rest of the campaign. I felt our next victory was not far away and so it proved as we won 2-1 at Goodison Park the following Saturday.
Middlesbrough finished bottom of the table that season and having spent six months in the relegation places, we avoided relegation by two points courtesy of six wins and two draws in our last ten games as the team started to gel and play some particularly good football for 90 minutes. It helped our cause that this was the first season of three points for a win.
Our candy-striped strips were something of an oddity that season and not universally popular. The young players introduced into the squad by Durban and the flashes of attacking football were sources of encouragement for hard-pressed fans, who were struggling in the grip of a national fiscal crisis, to the extent that Tom Cowie and the Sunderland board had dropped entry prices from £4.50 to £3.00 to try and help supporters follow their team.
So, it was 0-0 draw at a dour Ayresome Park that November day in 1981. I left with a bit of hope and pride in my team’s performance, little was I to realize that Forty years later I would still be waiting to see the Lads win at Boro.
Should we win on Monday night, I admit I will have a tinge of regret at not being there, but do you know what, a win is more important than sating my obsessional need to witness a victory at Middlesbrough!
Enjoy the game my fellow fans.