Three events made me think of my Canary friends this weekend:
1] A Facebook connection of my mine, Boro’s former “artist in residence” (I know, who would have thought Teesside could be so hoity-toity?) Richard Piers Rayner (who’d have thought a Teessider would have Piers in his name?) related a story about appearing in a feature on Football Focus, only for Garth Crooks to subsequently refer to him as Robert. I said he was in good company: I worked on Final Score the day Ricky Van Wolfswinkel made his Norwich debut. Garth decided he was called Wolfie Van Winkle.
2] I was slightly consoled on a day when Boro were outclassed for the first time this season that my second-favourite bet, sorry, team, had come from behind to win at Forest. I’m wary of omens, but Boro won 2-1 last autumn at Forest during a run which took them into the promotion places. I assured you weeks ago that you’d go up and probably finish above Newcastle. If you can just get the rest of the season called off now, I’ll have been right.
3] Rick Waghorn mentioned that there’s a bit of an ongoing kerfuffle about your club’s financial affairs, and that our media colleague, Facebook friend, and all-round good egg, Mick Dennis, has waded in. Did I have any observations, since I support a similar locally-owned and supported club?
So I’ve done a bit of homework, and the main conclusion I’ve reached is that while Mick sees football almost exactly as I do, he’s still a much better journalist than I am. He provides reams of facts and well-supported arguments whereas whenever I try to get involved in Boro debates, I tend to just throw a few bad jokes around or lose my rag.
I would in no way want to pass comment on Norwich’s ambitions but, as I’ve said before, we are remarkably similar clubs. We’ve both spent almost all our recent history bouncing between the top two divisions – I suspect we may swap divisions again at the end of this season – we’ve both won the League Cup, had a bit of European glory and produced lots of good players, many of whom we’ve eventually sold to “bigger clubs”.
And although Mick has received some stick for suggesting this, we also have similar “out on a limb” geography. This gives us both an enviable monopoly on our area’s support and young talent, but makes it trickier to get certain players or investors to come on board. Just look at a map, or plane or train schedules.
From the outside, we’re both envied for having people in charge with a proven love for the club. In both cases, this has been backed up by being there to rescue them in a time of need. Steve Gibson, as a 28 year-old local self-made millionaire, was part of the consortium which rescued Boro from liquidation in 1986, then eventually took overall control and moved us to the Riverside.
We’re a rare club where the chairman’s name is more likely to be sung than any manager, but people still complain vociferously. Yes, really. There were genuine mutterings on the Boro message boards when the latest transfer window shut that signing up Victor Valdes, Alvaro Negredo, Brad Guzan, Gaston Ramirez, Martin De Roon, Callum Chambers, and Antonio Barragan wasn’t good enough, and that we shouldn’t have let two Championship wingers go in Albert Adomah and Adam Reach.
Despite not being sure about either keeper, and fearing that there’ll inevitably be an Afonso Alves or Wolfie Van Winkle-style dud or two in there somewhere, this is the point at which I lost my rag. I was naturally accused of being a club patsy, and not wanting us to “move on to the next level”.
I replied that I’m a realist and that this is probably as good as it gets for a club like ours: I remember hearing a phone-in which Charlton fan after Charlton fan phoned up to suggest that, after another lower mid-table Premier League finish, Alan Curbishley and his board weren’t the men to take them to the “next level”. Well, their club’s found its “next level”, alright. A home defeat to AFC Wimbledon yesterday.
And breathe. Despite having a degree which supposedly included economics, I know next to nothing about football finances. Mick Dennis is one of the very few fans or football media men who’s made it his business to find out. Being debt-free and living within your means in any sphere of life has to be a good thing, surely? Just ask Leeds fans or Peter Ridsdale.
I believe that Boro are structured slightly differently from Norwich in that Steve Gibson’s profitable parent company is involved somehow, but we still met the Football League’s financial fair play rules, and went through a very difficult period after Gordon Strachan bought a series of Old Firm flops. New manager Tony Mowbray had to get them off the books and rely on free transfer s and the academy for a lean couple of years.
Current Premier League starters George Friend and Ben Gibson were propelled into our first X1 during that time. Naturally, the phone-in brand of native boycotted en masse and waved pitchforks in the street, but they’re all back now. Until we go on the inevitable run of Premier League defeats they haven’t seen coming, anyway.
The other difference, as far I know, is that Steve Gibson has never looked to sell. I wouldn’t use the Sunday Times Rich List to line the budgie’s cage, but I suspect he may be further up it than Delia and Michael. Even so, they can’t sell if there hasn’t been a potential buyer, and in any case, for every decent non-local buyer (sorry, I can’t think of one) you can just as easily end up with a Massimo Cellino or Mike Ashley.
Off the top of my head, I can only think of three reasonable-sized clubs whose recent owners I’d want to meet, let alone have as the custodian of my club: Boro, Norwich and Everton. And the third of those, Bill Kenwright, had the phone-in brigade baying at him for alleged lack of ambition while he waited for the right investor. He has ensured that he is still involved, so that great club doesn’t become unrecognisable as it pursues success.
F Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “The rich are different from you and me”. In my admittedly limited experience, most rich people and consortiums are not only different but, frankly, just horrible. Even the ones who do put their money where their mouth is – Abramovic, Abu Dhabi – want trophies in the same way as they want zero taxation and the biggest yacht in Monte Carlo, and tend to squeeze every last drop of soul out of their club.
I genuinely wouldn’t want to support Chelsea or Man City – no sensible neutral has liked Chelsea for about 40 years, but City were a much-admired underdog club for decades. Going to a game there now is like being at an airport, with the players passing inhabitants of some hollow transit lounge, and many of the long-suffering and funny supporters of old frozen out or bored by it all.
One of my best friends is a Watford fan of long-standing. For years, he’s followed them home and away, and watched them bounce up and down the divisions, with the occasional John Barnes or Ashley Young coming through the ranks before moving on. These days, they’re owned by the same people who own Udinese and Granada and the latest set of players and coaching staff are seemingly determined by where the revolving door stops.
Now they’re back in the top flight, he feels no connection to it all, and has stopped going. As he says, a glance at the first team sheet of the season is like a bad game of Football Manager, and for all anyone involved cares about the club (Troy Deeney apart) they may as well run out to “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye”.
Anyway, as I said, I don’t pretend to know as much as you all do about the details of the set-up at Norwich, but I’d always at least take Mick’s views on board, and keep the debate civil. I’d also urge you never to throw away the fantastic strengths you have as a club and supporter base in the pursuit of “the next level”.
Be careful what you wish for!