Football: Television the new Slaven trade

Simon Turnbull meets the stalwart forward who is now the club's front man
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The Independent Online
IT WAS tea-time on Teesside. Bernie Slaven was grabbing a quick cuppa before heading off to the studio. He had a lot to get through on Boro TV: the arrival of Paul Gascoigne, the Wembley date with Chelsea, the expansion of the Riverside Stadium. "The transformation really has been incredible," he said, considering Middlesbrough Football Club past and present. "When I came here in 1985 we were getting gates of 4,000. We went into liquidation at the end of the season."

In the summer of 1986 Slaven and his colleagues had to go to Middlesbrough Town Hall to collect their wages, paid for by the Professional Footballers' Association. Ayresome Park was padlocked, the club coffers drained. These days Slaven picks up his wages as a front man for Boro TV. He is the face of Boro in boom. Every Thursday night for five weeks now, and after home games since the start of the season, Slaven and the local radio commentator Alastair Brownlee have presented an hour-long show on the Comcast cable service. Boro TV reaches 100,000 homes on Teesside. It is the first small- screen venture by a football club in Britain.

"I think it's a great thing for the punters," Slaven said. "When I lived in Glasgow I would have loved to have seen something like it: the players being interviewed, behind the scenes in the changing room and at the training ground. I was a big Celtic fan. To think, even they've not got it... imagine that. But no doubt most clubs are going to get their own channels. Manchester United's is on the way, isn't it?"

It is, indeed. But Manchester United TV does not kick off until August. For the time being, though, Middlesbrough and their goal-poacher turned presenter are ahead of the game.

It was not quite the future Slaven envisaged when, like Gascoigne last week, he made the move from Glasgow to Teesside. At the time, in October 1985, he had been working as a part-time gardener in his native city and as a part-time goalscorer for Albion Rovers in Coatbridge. He wrote to every club in the English First and Second Divisions begging for a trial. Only Middlesbrough replied. He was the last signing before the club went bust - at pounds 25,000, less than the weekly wage it has taken to lure Boro's latest signing from Glasgow.

Gascoigne is the 14th player for whom Bryan Robson has paid pounds 1m or more in his four years as Middlesbrough manager. But a pounds 3.45m fee and a salary of pounds 1.5m cannot buy the kind of affection Slaven has enjoyed on Teesside. Last year, when Middlesbrough supporters were asked to pick the club's all-time greatest player, Slaven polled more votes than Wilf Mannion, George Hardwick and Brian Clough. He finished second to Juninho. Gascoigne will be a conspicuous success if he becomes half as popular.

"He's obviously going to catch the imagination of the fans," Slaven said of Boro's new boy. "There's no doubt about that. If he's fit I don't see anybody better in the country in his position. He's a terrific player. He's a character, too. Some of the things he does might not turn out right but I don't think there's any malice in him. I'd rather have 10 Paul Gascoignes than one Ravanelli. Despite his fortune and his fame, he hasn't forgotten his background. He hasn't changed. For me, coming from a council estate in Glasgow, that's a big plus.

"Steve Gibson is the same. When you're a player you don't tend to mix with directors. I've got to know Steve in the last few years. I play in charity games with him and I go on holiday to Cyprus with him in the summer. There's 26 of us lads together and we all wear our nice watches. I looked at Gibbo last year and he had a Boro watch on, worth about pounds 2. He's a millionaire. That, for me, puts him right up there. He's never forgotten that he's from Park End in Middlesbrough. He's a terrific guy, a genuine fan."

And Slaven's opinion of the Middlesbrough chairman is genuine too. He may be one of the faces of Boro TV but he is no club puppet. In his view, for instance, Middlesbrough have yet to marry happily their ambitions with their transfer market spending - some pounds 45m to date. "Bryan Robson has certainly brought in the big names," Slaven said. "But the way I look at it... it's like going to a nightclub and getting off with a big blonde. The lads will all say 'phwoar'. But can you keep her? We've been getting the big attractions but we've had problems holding on to them. Juninho, Ravanelli and Emerson all left while they were still under contract."

Slaven was under contract to Boro for eight years. And he was quite a scorer in that time - away from the local discos, that is. He bagged 134 goals for Middlesbrough. He never got his hands on a major trophy, but he will be at Wembley today hoping the Boro boys of '98 can create club history. The homecoming parade would make happy viewing.