Middlesbrough (A), The ACN Preview

20/11/20

Author, writer and Middlesbrough fan Daniel Gray joins Nick Hayhoe for a chat about floodlights, the Riverside ceilings, Wembley 2015 and, oh yeah, the football match between Middlesbrough and Norwich City that's apparently taking place this weekend.

With Middlesbrough and Norwich rapidly approaching as an important Championship clash this season, naturally the most important place to start would be to discuss the beauty of the old Ayresome Park floodlights. I, in particular, love that brilliant photograph of North Korea playing Italy in the ’66 World Cup, with an empty main stand but a corner terrace absolutely packed full of locals and the corner light looming above all like a giant alien structure. What do the floodlights, and memories of Ayresome Park in general mean to you?

Oh man. I wish I’d tried harder to persuade my Dad to sell the house and buy me one of those floodlights. I’m sure we could have lived in them – George Clarke has done more with less on Amazing Spaces. I guess every fan loves their own floodlights, but Ayresome’s were particularly handsome weren’t they.

The thing was, there were that many railway and industrial lights on pylons on the Teesside skyline that as a kid I’d be constantly worshipping the wrong part of town. But thinking of them inside the ground, they remind me of my very first game – one of those December afternoons where they have to be switched on before half-time, and seeing that incredible form of colour for the first time. And after that, Ayresome was just home, really. It still is in my head, despite the Riverside glory I’ve seen (stop laughing at the back. We were good for a bit). It’s the blood red of the stand roofs I think of a lot – there isn’t enough red in the Riverside walls and ceilings.

Ha! “Accidentally thinking you’ve spotted a stadium in the car when you haven’t and it is just an industrial park” is a good subject for another time I think. And yes, it’s something that I feel very lucky about with regards to Carrow Road – that we are still at home and never really likely to leave. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have the matchday routine knocked sideways. A different walk to the ground, a different chip shop, a different pub.

Your new book , Extra Time, a sequel to Saturday, 3pm (a book that genuinely contributed to me getting a Norwich season ticket again and happening to get it when we had one of our greatest ever seasons, so thank you for that!) explores those eternal delights of football that contribute to everything that makes being a supporter so much more than just going to watch a football match. Considering the current situation, I found myself staring off into the middle distance in a reverie after each chapter imagining what it will be like when we all get back to the games. What thing have you personally missed the most, if you can pick just one?

Oh Nick, that makes me really chuffed, even if I did essentially lead to you spending hundreds and hundreds of pounds. There’s a funny thing with Extra Time in that two of the entries – ‘Being in an Empty Ground’ and ‘Hearing the Players’ – now seem prophetic and as if they’re referring to the Covid present! Anyhow, it is a bit of a personal answer when most of the entries in the book are supposed to be universal to all fans, and it is probably predictable, but it would be chapter 49: ‘Going With My Daughter’. I’m really missing what had become something of a routine, and that dedicated shared time of staring at a pitch talking about the linesman’s large arse or getting autographs after the game.

I was actually thinking of how I miss the joy of spotting parents with children at the game the other day. As I sit in the Barclay, the loudest stand at Carrow Road, I love seeing the wide eyes of a kid holding mum or dad’s hand and knowing they’ll be saying “I sat in the Barclay on Saturday; you wouldn’t believe the swear words I heard!” to their huddled school chums the following Monday.

Back to the Boro then. And there’s one famous Middlesbrough v Norwich game that I’m afraid I have to bring up…the 2015 Play Off Final. It was an odd day for me, as I was suffering with vertigo at the time and nearly fell down the steps at Wembley when I first looked down at the pitch from the top tier. What are your memories of that day? I got chatting to Boro fans on the tube afterwards and they all seemed to accept it with a shrug and the words “Typical Boro” were said more than once…

That’s a lovely thought, about kids going back into school talking about what they’ve seen. I’ll have to nick it if there’s a reprint of Extra Time and add it to the ‘Seeing a First Match Fan’ chapter!

Writing that piece for the ACN fanzine back in the summer was, would you believe it, the first time I’d ever confronted watching some of that day back, which probably tells you how I felt about it! I remember setting out in such hope, pre-match pints swelling that hope, certain lucky omens along the way like bumping into Mark Schwarzer and then Curtis Fleming, then making our noise but suddenly looking up in the stadium and remembering that this wall of yellow felt the same as us. And then you played like Brazil 1970 and Dean Whitehead at right-back suddenly looked about 52-years-old. What a lovely Norwich side, though. And sorry about your vertigo. I hope you don’t now do things to try and bring it on before big games as a good luck charm.

We were beaten in a Play Off Final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff in 2002 on penalties when I was 10, causing me to bawl my eyes out and has scarred me for life, so I can feel the pain. Honest! 2015 was such an unNorwich performance, it was closure for that 2002 defeat in lots of ways.

How are the current Boro team looking? I expect the type of football Warnock has the current side playing is somewhat different to those halcyon days of Ravanelli, Juninho, etc…

Why do they put us through such trauma?!

Ha, true, though the football this season under Warnock is far more pacy than I imagined. That could be down to the hand he’s been dealt – the smallest squad we’ve had probably this century means playing youngsters with real speed in Spence and Coulson. McNair has been outstanding as a midfielder at centre-half, another necessary discovery due to us only having two fit centre-backs most of the time, and one of them being 18 (Nathan Wood). So it’s an immense achievement to be where we are going in to the game. The big worry is up front – only having two strikers, at least one of whom has often been ill or injured, means, if winning, we are a 1-0 team more than a 4-0 one. It’s safe to say we won’t need the five subs from nine players. In fact, I might go and hang outside the Riverside with my boots. That’s an essential journey, isn’t it?

Heh yes I’d have thought so. Such is the fickle nature of football supporting we Norwich fans were decrying the five sub rule last year and now we’re all for it. Changing rules halfway through the season? Great idea! Never had a problem with it.

It’s horrible having an injury crisis though ain’t it? We had a disastrous one last year and it sucks the life from you. Unlike a thrashing, where gallows humour and an eye on the next game can keep you going, an injury crisis is one long miserable time after another.

Finally, what are your predictions for the game? I don’t make predictions generally as when it comes to football I am still 13 years old and I still think Norwich will win every game 5-0 and Darren Huckerby will score a hat-trick, but things have been going too well for us lately and I know we’ve got to cock up at some point. This may well be the time.

Ha ha, I’m exactly the same with predictions. Well, when I’m going to the game, anyway – I’m much more pessimistic when not there. It probably comes from that ridiculous notion that we as fans can actually affect the result (we can, we totally can…) if present. It’s rare we beat Norwich, and Warnock may have the Curse of the Manager of the Month Award (has anyone ever studied the stats on that one?), but in the name of optimism, I’ll say 1-1 with both goals scored by whichever one of Jordan Hugill or Ben Gibson plays. I don’t think I’ve ever been there to see someone scoring in both ends, actually. Mind, I still won’t be, unless I’m playing left-back.

Dan’s book “Extra Time: 50 Further Delights of Modern Football” is out now. You can buy it from your local independent bookshop (Norfolk has a many of them – give them, not Jeff Bezos, your money!), or you can buy it online from When Saturday Comes here: shop.wsc.co.uk/extra-time.

Comments

  1. Roger Cole says:

    Lovely exchange between two real footie fans. More in common than not and we have learned what to expect from this surprisingly un-Warnock-like side. I though it was extremely tactful of Nick not to bring up that most unmemorable of games, 1-0 home defeat at the Carrer when Boro proceeded to give us a masterclass in time wasting after snatching the lead. Very recent memory of which made the play-off final all the sweeter.

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