In the midst of a chaotic marriage break-up, Bob Dylan wrote “Blood on the Tracks”, arguably the most tortured of all his albums. Many fans and critics think it was his finest hour, but the Nobel Laureate himself says he can’t understand why anyone would “enjoy” listening to such pain and misery.
That was pretty much my response when Rick Waghorn asked me to summarise Middlesbrough’s 2017-18 season. But then he promised to buy me a beer as he visits “that there London” this week, so I thought I’d give it a go, and give you all something to mock or pity, as you see fit.
Well, as we’re all seeing on a far too frequent basis at the moment, there are far, far more important things in life than football. The problem is when you’re in the Premier League – even just for a season – there’s a danger you get sucked into thinking that’s not the case.
Put simply, other than the quality of football sometimes played by the opposition, it’s mostly over-hyped, self-important and dire. This is a world where it’s deemed appropriate to form a guard of honour as a veteran centre-half retires to concentrate on racism and adultery.
Sunderland were castigated for kicking the ball out in the 26th minute to allow this to happen – though not by those who cashed in on the betting scam – but to be fair, you only had to ask nicely all season and you could name the minutes (often several of them) in which you wanted to score against Moyes’s hapless mob and they were likely to oblige.
Meanwhile, finishing fifth after 20 seasons in the top four, not to mention reaching another FA Cup Final, was apparently a catastrophe of such cataclysmic proportion that you have to foam at the mouth on the nearest phone-in. And if you could get through the queue of Liverpool and Man Utd fans in Devon and Cornwall who weren’t at the final game but knew the manager got his tactics wrong, and that “we” should have had three penalties.
Away from the top end, my Watford mate says they may as well run out to “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye”. Every new season sees a new manager dredged up from somewhere or other, and ten new Udinese loanees join Troy Deeney who tries to explain where they are and who Graham Taylor was.
And worst of all, there’s the London Stadium. Thank goodness, away tickets are capped at £30 across the PL – a genuinely good initiative, to be fair – although Lady Brady would have personally to hand me her Sun column fee for the week to return to that taxpayer-funded disgrace.
All in all, for all that you had a bit of a crap season, you’re so much better off where you are. Seriously. You scored more than three times as many goals as Boro, and won exactly four times as many games.
I suggested at Xmas that we should boycott the whole thing and join a league of underachieving semi-big clubs next season. With only one win and 10 league goals scored in the whole of 2017 so far, it seems the club agreed – even the one win was 1-0 in a desperate game which completed a double over the Sunderland collapsible car clown show, so doesn’t really count.
The terrible thing is that they didn’t do it deliberately, they all gave absolutely everything. Apart, that is, from the talented but disgraceful Gaston Ramirez who should never have appeared again after demanding a transfer, then visibly not trying for the first 45 minutes on a classic windy afternoon at Stoke, before being subbed at half-time. It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever booed a Boro player.
Even Ben Gibson and Adam Clayton looked like they wanted to throttle him as they came off. And it’s nothing to do with coming from Uruguay – horrible though he is, Luis Suarez always gets stuck in (admittedly sometimes with his teeth) and the greatest Boro player of the modern era was a certain lightweight South American with the heart of a lion.
We only had one player consistently performing at a Premier League standard – the aforementioned Gibson, who ought to be allowed to stay at that level – but there really wasn’t a lack of effort.
Even comedy keeper Brad Guzan was trying, even it was mostly our patience he was trying, once Victor Valdes was injured.
Our relegation game at Chelsea featured possibly my favourite social media exchange of all time: Brad somehow managed to let all three Chelsea goals through his legs and an exasperated friend posted “I wish Guzan would close his legs”. Back came the reply, “I wish his mother had closed her legs”.
To be honest, the fans were much the best thing about the season – sell outs at pretty much every away game, non-stop singing, loads of gallows humour. I think you Norwich people know all about that – as I’ve said before, give me the locally-based loyalty and a lifelong link any day instead of the selfies, wandering in and out during the game, merchandise-devouring and general cluelessness you see passing itself off as support at the Emirates or Etihad these days.
It’s going to be a busy summer – as well as changing our manager and presumably not giving the job to the hapless caretaker, most of the backroom staff have gone, including a head of recruitment who should have been sacked halfway through the sentence, “I’ve bought Brad Guz…”
All manner of mystery players appeared and disappeared through the season – the biggest disappointment being one Viktor Fischer who was supposed to be Ajax’s playmaker, but in rare cup outings against the likes of Oxford and Accrington was compared unfavourably in some (slightly tasteless) quarters to his namesake Carrie. Ajax seem to have just about coped without him en route to their first European final this century.
Perhaps the biggest shock of all though came in the last couple of weeks when our previously universally-adored chairman, Steve Gibson rounded off a season in which for the first time his judgement has been widely questioned, by sending a letter to every householder in the Stockton South constituency (which includes the relatively posh bits of North Yorkshire where most of the players live) encouraging them to vote for the sitting Conservative MP, James Wharton.
I don’t want to get too party political about this, but while Jeremy Corbyn’s 1970s polytechnic lecturer style doesn’t necessarily strike a chord (or cords) in Teesside, Gibson was once Middlesbrough’s youngest Labour councillor. Less than 18 months ago, he described the self-same Wharton, head of George Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse”, as a “clown” for ducking meetings about the closure of Redcar steelworks which cost many Boro season ticket holders their livelihoods*.
Unless I’ve missed something (maybe Mike Ashley is a plant from a trade union?) I think this leaves Delia and Ed Balls as the last left-leaning people involved in running football clubs in the whole country. Somehow, everything I’ve ever thought for three decades about our club being slightly different from the norm is eroding. The final straw will come if and when Juninho announces he’s a big fan of Donald Trump.
Anyway, see you all in the Championship, home of proper football and sleeping semi-giants. Having suffered pretty much every game this season, I’m going to pick and choose my away trips more carefully next season. Strangely, I think I’ll opt for a weekend or midweek in Norfolk, just fractionally ahead of Leeds and Millwall…
- As a historical footnote, here’s what Boro fans sang lustily as the steel works were about to close. Made me laugh like a drain and feel very proud all at the same time:
“Cameron, wherever you may be, you’re not fit to run our country.
You sh***ed a pig, you made it squeal.
Now get off your arse and save our steel”