Football: Not guilty as charged but abuse continues

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The Independent Online
I WENT to the Middlesbrough v Southampton match last Sunday. Nothing remarkable about that, you might think. However, there is. I had not set foot on Teesside since Middlesbrough were relegated from the Premiership two years ago, their fate sealed by the decision of the Premier League to dock them three points for calling off a match at Blackburn Rovers without permission.

It had become clear to me - from the many abusive letters I received and the reception accorded me at two cup finals in 1997 - that most, if not all, Middlesbrough supporters held me solely responsible for their visit to the Nationwide. It made no difference that the ruling on the three points had nothing whatsoever to do with me. It was entirely a Premier League matter for Rick Parry and his colleagues. But it was I who took the rap. Obviously I was the convenient establishment fall-guy.

The abuse did not worry me too much. I simply resolved to steer clear of Teesside for a while. A considerable while! Then, last Sunday morning, after our Durham Buffaloes team had defied the passing of time with another sparkling performance, my friend Ian happened to offer me a spare ticket for the game later that day. His girlfriend was unable to go, having given birth to their daughter three weeks earlier. It could have been worse, I learned, because the baby had been due the very day Juninho had, according to rumour, been scheduled to make his return debut. Neither Juninho nor the baby arrived on schedule.

"Are you sure you want to take me?" I asked, "Haven't you forgotten something?" "What's that?" he said. "Your fans don't like me," I reminded him. "I was even barred from a wedding in Middlesbrough last year." "Oh there'll be no problem," he assured me, "we're back in the Premier League now."

So it was that I found myself queuing with Ian outside his chosen entrance at half past three. He is superstitious and firmly believes Boro's performance is inextricably linked to the turnstile he uses. He must have used every door in the ground this season as home performances have fluctuated.

Climbing the steps inside the ground we encountered our first problem. "What's he doing here?" shouted a burly home fan. "He shouldn't be allowed in the ground." To my amusement, Ian apologised to me and attempted to explain the true situation to the protester as I walked on. I can only assume Ian's reasoned argument fell on deaf ears, for the last words I heard (whose they were I am not sure) were "F*** off, you w*****."

I received one or two strange looks on the concourse, but no more abuse came my way. I bumped into a former FA colleague. He is another Middlesbrough supporter. He never revealed whether he had defended me to his friends or joined in the abuse two years ago.

The young defender Robbie Stockdale predicted in the match programme that Middlesbrough's next few games would not be brilliant to watch. He was certainly proved right that day. After the stadium had filled rapidly between ten to four and kick off, there was little flair on display. Gazza was missing. Possibly he had suffered a mishap in the Comic Relief nude match.

My neutral gaze alighted on Matthew Le Tissier. Sadly, he was out of sorts. Shortly after being booked for a foul, he was fortunate that referee Mike Reed missed him punching clear a free-kick when standing in a defensive wall on the penalty spot. The veteran, Mark Hughes, tried to play some football, but one volleyed shot went out of play near the half-way line.

Hamilton Ricard gave the Southampton defence (and their small band of fans) a worrying afternoon, and Mikkel Beck created a bit of space. He has a distinctive feint as he receives the ball, blond mane and body making to go one way, ball and feet the other. And Dean Gordon foraged down the left wing to good effect, once hitting the foot of a post.

There was a fashion parade at half time. Fans have been asked to choose Middlesbrough's away kit for next season. Purple with green trim drew derision. Purple and white drew equal scorn. And purple and darker purple did not go down awfully well either. Universal acclamation was reserved for white with purple collar.

Middlesbrough eventually ran out comfortable 3-0 winners. Thirty-three thousand fans trudged away from the Riverside Stadium happy in the knowledge that a worrying slide had been halted, albeit at the expense of a pretty dreadful Southampton team.

The natives were no longer revolting. Some even asked me to come again. I will.