It's 41 years since I last visited Middlesborough, for one of the shock results of all time, North Korea 1 vs Italy 0 at Ayresome Park during World Cup 1996. Then there were only 16 teams and the Koreans were the only team from outside Europe or Latin America,.
Middlesborough are sponsored by a SAT-NAV company so were able to get to their new Riverside Stadium on time, but the mighty Arsenal, Premier League leaders and undefeated for 3 months, took a wrong turning off the A66 and just about made it. Well, they received a beating, one down after only 4 minutes from a Stewart Downing penalty, and a second deep in the second half from man of the match Sanli Tuncay of Turkey. Tomas Rosicky scored a consolation goal for the Gunners in the 95th minute but all was lost by then. Without 5 regulars Arsenal were on the defensive throughout. They don't like teams coming at them so agressively, and although The Boro are relegation threatened, they provided skill, drive, perseverance and commitment the length of the match. Ross Turbull, Boro's 3rd choice keeper was hardly troubled, and with Derek Wheater and Jonathan Woodgate in the middle of the back line they were hard to break down. The very tall Emmanuel Adebayor was always a threat for the league leaders, but they just couldn't penetrate.
Coach Gareth Southgate could hardly be more pleased with his under fire team, and although the visitors were England most attractive team, there were still lots of spare seats and 26,500 showed up.
When approaching the Box Office we enquired if it was a sell out. "Are you joking," was the reply. It's never a sell out at the Riverside, but without a good contingent of Gunners supporters, it would have attracted less than 20,000 fans. As it were there were 26,000, about 80% full. Outside the stadium are two large bronze statues to local legends. One is of Wilf Mannion, he of the flowing blonde hair who challenged the establishment in the '50's over a fixed wage of about $30.00 US a week and wa punished for it. He died in 2000 but a number of years earlier I sat with him and his wife Bernadette in the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro for a local derby. He was then in his 70's and clung on to my arm, frightened by the fireworks and fires set off by fans. Of course he had been on the England team that lost 1-0 to USA in Bello Horizonte in the Brazilian interior at World Cup 1950. In the days when players earned very little, he told me of scoring in front of 140,000 spectators for Great Britain vs Europe in 1947 at Glasgow's Hampden Park. Given a third class rail ticket he had to travel back home sitting on his suitcase in the corridor of a full train. Heroes indeed!!!
The other statue is the captain of Great Britain that day, George Hardwick, another 'Boro legend of a club founded in 1876. Unlike the statue of Mannion, swinging his foot, Hardwick is captured in a pose with his arms folded and one foot on the ball,(encassed in those heavy, hard toed boots) and his long sleeve England jersey with the sleeves rolled up, sporting his famous mustache. He died in 2004 and was 'Boro's greatest ever defender, the first post-war captain of England, and of that Great Britain team in the match to celebrate victory in Europe