I’ve always seen comparisons between Roy Hodgson’s Fulham and Steve McClaren’s Middlesbrough so it was no surprise yesterday to see everyone’s favourite Dutchman (behind Clarence Seedorf, of course) popping up in support of Roy’s tactics, claiming that possession means nothing and what you want is to park the bus and play for set pieces (I paraphrase).
It did, however remind me of my article in the latest issue of the Mudhutter, reminiscing over one of the key moments, for me, in the last seven years of barclaypremierleague football.
Middlesbrough (h) 18 September 2005
For about my first twenty years of watching Latics, the thought of seeing my team running out against some of the best players in the world, in one of the best leagues in the world, on tele and everything, barely crossed my mind. But we did it, by George, and what a lot of thrills and spills we’ve had in the seven years (give or take a week) since Lee McCulloch eased the pressure on that sunny May afternoon in 2005.
So so many, but, still, when the editor of this fine publication asked us to place bids for the moments we wanted to write about for this celebrative/commiserative (delete as appropriate) issue, only one sprung to mind. I’d have preferred if to have been something else, but this game was the defining moment of my views on the BarclaysPremierLeague and, much more than all the glorious comebacks, the one I’ll be banging in to my grandchildren about until they put me in a home.
Most football fans are like I used to be, they understand their place in the world, accept the ‘us and them’ divide and get on with the ultimate aim of not being the most embarrassing side in the lower leagues. For these people (us?) thoughts of top flight football sit, uncomfortably, between unrequited love and impossibly romantic dream. Actually, no, both of those are (along with all that “better than sex” and “love my team more than my wife” nonsense) too grown up expressions to capture the real of the romance of football fandom.
No, being a football fan is more like being at a teenage party and most top flight sides are like those pretty girls that seem dead confident and can get away with anything they want because of it. We, of course are the spotty lads in the corner who are likely to come over all giddy if we manage to dance near one of these aloof and exotic creatures (a League Cup tie) let alone actually talk to one of them (say a FA cup game). Yes, it’s a strange old romance, but it’s what we all hang our hats on, just the same.
To carry on that analogy, Latics’ opening Premier League fixture was the unthinkable. We’d shimmied over, strutted our stuff well enough to strike up a conversation and the next thing you know, not only had we copped off, we were here on a bloody date. The fact that we didn’t get any further than a quick snog against Chelsea didn’t matter, here we were, full of the joys of spring and actually ‘seeing’ someone. Strike one for spotty oiks everywhere!
Another disappointing date down at the Valley followed before we really got things going, copping a feel at the JJB against Sunderland before going to her place, at the hawthorns, and getting under the blouse, if not the bed clothes, with a last minute Bullard winner, no doubt whilst her mum and dad were at work, or something. Oh, the rush of youthful naiveté, this really was romance, anything was possible, could we even get IT soon.
There’s only one thing guaranteed to dampen the spirits of an amorous youth more than the sound of a parent’s key in a Yale lock and that’s someone taking things too seriously. Yes, we said we loved you, but that was what we thought you wanted to hear. We didn’t expect it to lead to, you know, plans. Especially not game plans…
And so we find ourselves, one Sunday lunchtime in September, awaiting the visit of Middlesbrough. An eighth place finish the previous season had seen them qualify for Europe and consolidation in the top half of the table must have been their overall aim this time around. The fact that they found themselves in the EUFA Cup final come May shows just how much quality they had about them and it’s hard to imagine a situation where a team in their position wouldn’t look at a side like Latics and think “get an early lead here and we could teach these young upstarts a lesson”. They’d beaten Arsenal 2-1 in their previous league game, so they could have easily had us over, and let’s face it that’s pretty much how things should be.
What you wouldn’t expect a well established and recently successful top flight team to show any sort of fear when visiting a newly promoted team. What was there to fear after all? This was just one game out of 38, an away one at that, surely there was more to gain by trying to take all three points than there was to lose through doing anything else?
Who knows how the game would have panned out if Yakubu hadn’t grabbed a 14th minute lead for Boro? Maybe it would have got to the stage where Steve McClaren would have let his team off the leash and have a go at Latics, but I’ve seen enough since that day to know that wasn’t really a possibility. The visitors had one thing in mind and that was playing to not lose. The early goal just served as a stronger foundation to their plan, allowing the goal scorer to sit back right on top of the midfield four, leaving Marc Viduka to do the hard yakka of leading the first line of defence.
Latics then did what you’d expect a ‘lesser’ side to do in that situation. They plugged away manfully but, without a ‘magician’ to unlock the massed ranks of the Boro defence, their efforts were to little effect. Ok, so Henri Camara’s equaliser offered some hope but ultimately it only served as proof of the visitors’ original intent by failing to draw any interest in them spending the remaining twenty-odd minutes regaining their lead.
They’d been playing for a draw despite being a goal to the good, which was their prerogative, I suppose. But I’d pegged Boro as a side for us to emulate and the sheer bloody mindedness of their approach opened my eyes to how cynically teams away from the top of the table treated life in the Premier League.
As far as I was concerned, that just wasn’t right, after a few weeks of puppy love, things had turned sour at the drop of a five man midfield. What had been hanging around on street corners, sneaking the odd private moment and running with careless abandon had very quickly changed. Things were looking a lot more like nights in front of the tele, Sunday dinners with the parents and talking about… THE FUTURE. Of course, the teenager that resides (not so) deep inside of me wanted none of it.
This is roughly where the analogy falls down. The fifteen year old lad running away from “going steady” (to borrow that horrible American phrase) is escaping his own fear of commitment, responsibility or whatever. What I wanted none of was other people’s fear of embarrassment, losing or, god forbid, relegation. All the stuff that football isn’t supposed to be about and yet plays such a large part in top flight football in this country.
To see a team sucking all the joy out of a game by readily accepting anything but defeat from a game that was there for the taking was, at best, an eye opener or, at worst, a blow to my principles. I think that a small piece of me died that afternoon, no that’s over dramatic, but a piece of my inner oik did. I’m not stupid enough to ignore the effect that all the TV money has had on the game, but what do us football fans have if we don’t have romance? And what use is £50m if all you get from spending it are fans, greedy with expectation, ready to turn on each other, and the club, at the drop of a hat?
Ironically, for Latics at least, our most rocky period in that regard has been over the last three years. As the manager has strived to drive out the fear from our play, to get his side to believe in themselves and his methods, large groups of our fans have tightened their grip on the poisoned chalice of the Premier League and screamed blue murder at the merest suggestion that it might be time to let go.
Me, I don’t know whether I was scarred by the shock of the Boro game, or whether my romanticism is basically incurable but I’ve always been of the view that I’d rather see us going down playing the game, doing anything just to stay up. The majority of games in this division are winnable and it’s just not cricket to not try. And if, one day, that sees us back in the corner, with those other guys, casting admiring glances at the beautiful people on the other side of the room in the vain hope that they’ll be reciprocated, then so be it.
At least we know that those girls are a whole lot easier and desperate than they let on.
This article first appeared in issue 38 of The Mudhutter magazine. If you fancy a bit of light reading, some of which may even be related to Latics then you can get back issues from here.
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