Why does football always wrong me?
The sport gives me everything – only to take it swiftly away again. Just at the point that I am becoming a bit too excited by my team’s performances, footballing reality returns to remind me that, perhaps, there is no real point in being a football fan at all.
No team is without its problems. And no team’s good fortune lasts forever. Take a look at Chelsea for example. The summer of 2015 sees them crowned league champions, the beginning of 2016 sees them languishing in the bottom half, and now again in they sit back at the top of the pile, a win away from the title. But for all Chelsea’s great performances this term, you can rest assured that a footballing trough is waiting patiently around the corner to neatly and totally eradicate this peak. Whilst this season’s success can’t be revoked, it certainly can be removed from the minds of Blues fans. Football supporters are among the most loyal and yet fickle people you could imagine.
I am a Middlesbrough supporter. There’s no need to laugh, I’m already fully aware that my team will be soon playing in the Championship. Boro can’t score, can’t keep possession of the ball, and over Christmas we also seemed to forget how to defend. It’s a shame, because no-one could argue that the lads made an encouraging start on their return to the Premier League. If you’d have asked me after we dismantled rivals Sunderland in our second game of the season to move up to sixth position I’d have told you, in no uncertain terms, where to go and stick your relegation.
But footballing reality can be so very cruel. Footballing reality can feed off your complacency, and claim its cold retribution. Because the bigger they are, well, you know.
It always amazes me the way modern day footballers are shown to be emotionless in the media; these guys are not superhuman, folks. Come on down to the Riverside Stadium on a weekend and see my point first hand. Come on down to the Riverside, where we have only won one game since the 17th of December, and you will see emotion as clear as day all over the faces of the footballers in red. That emotion is fear. You can read the players faces like books, with every cautious attack, every shooting opportunity that is turned down, and every backwards and sideways pass. These are guys that have frozen, mentally and physically, with the kind of fear that can only be brought on as you are rapidly towards relegation back down to the Championship.
That is the most interesting thing about the Boro post-Christmas decline. This is not a hopeless squad. The opposite – it’s actually a far more promising group than a lot of teams who have staved off Premier League relegation in the past few years alone. You look at the backbone of the squad and there is undoubted quality: the likes of Valdes, Gibson, De Roon, Ramirez, Negredo. These players would be the envy of plenty of other clubs in this relegation scrap. But when faced with the battle that the trapdoor poses, teams can either come out swinging (think Leicester 2014/15) or retreat within themselves. I travel each week to scream my beloved team on, but I cannot scream loud enough to shake the paralysis that has set in.
Despite this, I am sadistically happy that I have been a part of my club this season. This season has changed my outlook on the sport, and fandom. I like to think it has matured me. Never again will I take for granted the upward trajectory of the team I support or ignore the warning signs of an impending decline. It’s unhealthy – never mind delusional – to think that the only way for your football club to go is up.
If you’re a fan on Teesside your recent career as a supporter can almost exclusively be punctuated by disappointments. Low attendances, poor performances, Middlesbrough (the area and the club) was seriously put through the ringer during its seven years in the Championship. The area’s appetite for football has never dwindled, but for a long period, the crowds could not identify with the players that were fielded and the performances that the team were giving. It was not until late 2014 when the excitement gradually began to return to the Riverside. The team, then under the stewardship of Aitor Karanka, started to pick up points in fits and spurts and, after missing out on a few wins later in the season, eventually, the side found itself in the play-offs. As supporters, we had barely seen the top half of the Championship in a while, never mind the play-off spots. And as the team’s spirits grew, so did hope in the stands. We had found a team with an identity and a team we could get right behind. And get behind them we did. Not even a 2-0 loss at Wembley to Norwich in the play-off final could really kill our positivity; we were on the right track, a path that would eventually take us to the promised land of the Premier League. We could feel it.
Promotion was gained in the 2015/16 season. It was a campaign not without its hiccups, but over the course of the year, it was hard to argue that Boro didn’t deserve to go up automatically. Being in the crowd in the moment that we clinched the long-awaited return back to the Premier League brought a feeling that I am incapable of describing. Fans around the town were going ballistic. In just a couple of years we had climbed from the base to the top of the league, and with a summer of new arrivals on the horizon, we were all hopeful, perhaps expectant, that Boro’s incline would continue amongst the big guns of the first division.
No doubt, we got completely caught up in the euphoria of our triumph, and in doing so perhaps lost touch with the bigger footballing picture. In celebrating the achievement of putting the town back on the map and re-taking our place at the Premier Division dinner table, we lost ourselves in our excitement. The team’s progress had me so consumed, so encapsulated, that what has unfolded before my eyes in 2017 has completely blindsided me. And that has made the pain that much more vivid.
Because the turn of the year triggered a brutally humbling demise of pretty much the whole of the football club. Poor signings, a managerial departure and at the heart of it all some insultingly useless performances have left Middlesbrough in 19th place in the league, and with the lowest scoring record of any team in the top four tiers of the English game. To go back and break down the start of the year game-by-game would be too painful for me to do, but club legend Bernie Slaven said it best when he described our side as ‘all foreplay, no penetration’.
Only now, after I have seen my team’s criminally pathetic display in a must-win game against Bournemouth at the weekend, where we lost by four goals to nothing, can I start to mentally get over the four-month-long implosion I have witnessed. Now that our relegation is confirmed, I can ponder the post-mortem of the 2016/17 campaign. I am, at this point, crippled with football-supporter depression. Now that any shred of hope for my team’s survival has gone, I can begin to move on from the suffering – but in all honesty, I’m not sure the feeling will ever completely leave me.
And in some ways, maybe that’s a good thing. Any kind of naivety that I had as a twenty-year-old football lover has long gone. Since the summer of last year, Middlesbrough football players have stopped being my heroes, and have slowly been reduced down to not much more than a group of mercenaries. I feel conflicted because I hate to use such scathing words to describe the representatives of the club I love so deeply. My 2016 self would never have been able to dish out such a tag. But today, I’m able to see clearly that in the cases of the vast majority of the players, that these words are 100% true. This year has taught me a harsh lesson, forced me to grow up as a football fan. It has served as a defining moment in my career as a follower of Middlesbrough Football Club and I know it. There is a before and an after to this sporting horror for me. I have been changed irreversibly. I have been scarred forever.
Maybe I’m just bitter. Maybe what’s happened has left me unable to think rationally about football, for now at least. Maybe football reality has just hit me repeatedly too hard for the last few months, and this is my way of lashing out. But even if you are supporting a stable, progressive team at this moment, try to hear what I am saying. Don’t ever presume that your club can’t be my club in the near future. Don’t be fooled into thinking that potential collapse is more than a few results away. No matter how good you think you are, or what division you play in, each season hearts are broken by underperforming football teams up and down the Football League. This year it was Boro, Swindon, Blackburn, Orient, Rotherham to name a few. But next year it could be your heart that is broken. And you will find yourself, much like I am at present, asking if there really is much of a point to this whole business of adoring a football team so persistently. I am wrestling with myself to find the answer to that very question.