The Boro benefactor who will always be a man of the people

Steve Gibson rescued the club from extinction with minutes to spare, but the fans love him - and not the departing Steve McClaren - because he is one of them, writes Simon Turnbull
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At 12.15pm yesterday flight BD7953 from Durham Tees Valley Airport landed on Dutch terra firma. Fly Me to the Moon they call the leading fanzine dedicated to Middlesbrough Football Club. Just getting to Eindhoven has been a flight of fanciful fulfilment for Boro's band of loyal fans - not least of them Steve Gibson.

Steve McClaren might be the centre of attention in the Uefa Cup final tonight but in victory or defeat against Seville it will be Middlesbrough's chairman, rather than their departing manager, who is guaranteed the loudest acclamation from the 9,200 Teessiders inside the Philips Stadium. The relationship between the Boro fans and England's manager-in-waiting has been more like an arranged marriage than a love affair. Between them and Gibson, it has been one of unbridled passion.

"That's because Steve Gibson is one of us," Rob Nichols, Fly Me to the Moon's editor, said. "He was born to it. He's a fan who's a chairman, who's leading the club in everyone's interest - in a businesslike fashion, but as a fan. People trust Steve Gibson.

"He's also special to us because of his role in rescuing the club in 1986. To think where he's got us in 20 years is incredible. We looked dead and buried that summer." They did, indeed. Twenty years ago this month Middlesbrough went into liquidation carrying a debt of some £2.2m. Gibson, a director for 18 months, took charge of the fight to save the club. He was on holiday in Italy when he took a telephone call informing him that the consortium he had spent the summer putting together had lost a crucial £200,000 promise.

He was back home fighting to rescue the situation when the Football League announced they would not allow Middlesbrough to come out of liquidation without guarantees of paying every penny owed. The Wednesday before the start of the 1986-87 season Gibson watched the evening news on Tyne Tees Television announce the passing of Middlesbrough Football Club.

On the Friday afternoon, just three minutes before the Football League's final deadline, salvation was found thanks to a bond offered by ICI - Imperial Chemical Industries, Teesside's principal source of employment. Ayresome Park was still padlocked. Middlesbrough had to fulfil their opening home fixture the next day up the A19 at Hartlepool. They drew 2-2 against Port Vale, watched by a crowd of 3,690.

Their supporters in Eindhoven will have those dark days somewhere in mind as they watch their beloved Boro shoot for the moon of a European trophy against Seville - including Nichols, who was one of the 3,690 at Hartlepool. "People will look back and say, 'Well, teams always get rescued,' but there wasn't a massive groundswell of people holding out hope," he reflected. "Everyone had just written it off."

Not Gibson. The son of a Middlesbrough welder, he made his fortune after borrowing £1,000 from his father to start a business transporting hazardous chemicals. He was 23 at the time. Now 48, his wealth is estimated to be £85m and his company, Bulkhaul, has offices in Germany, Belgium, the United States, South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Brazil.

Gibson followed Boro on the terraces from the days of John Hickton and became a director in November 1984, aged 26. He took control in 1993 and began to put Middlesbrough on the football map, pushing through the move to a new stadium, appointing Bryan Robson as manager and bankrolling the arrivals of Juninho, Fabrizio Ravenelli and others to the Riverside.

There were three cup final appearances in 12 months, in 1997 and 1998, but then, even when the Robson regime ran out of momentum - first with one relegation, then with the threat of another - Gibson held his nerve. After Terry Venables kept them in the top flight, the chairman gave Steve McClaren his first break in management. The result: the Carling Cup in 2004, Middlesbrough's first major prize; seventh place in the Premiership last year, equalling the club's highest top-flight placing in 54 years; and a place in the Uefa Cup final tonight.

As McClaren himself underlined: "This club nearly went extinct 20 years ago and now look at it. That's down to the chairman. He's brought the town and the club what he promised he would: success."

McClaren has much to thank Gibson for, not least the support when Middlesbrough's season was falling apart in February. Among fans, there was always mild resentment that McClaren was angling for "better" things, but there is appreciation for Gibson keeping the club's interests at heart, such as last week, when his sole concern upon confirmation of McClaren's England appointment was ensuring continuity at the Riverside.

"The new manager will have to fit into the culture of this of this football club, our integrity," he said. "The academy will not be touched. We want progress on Middlesbrough Football Club's terms. We want our philosophy and our methods to be followed." Such sentiments might sound hollow from other chairmen, but not from Gibson, who is rare among the species in having never heard a chant for his head.

"In this day and age, it is unique," Nichols reflected. "You see these sort of things happen briefly at clubs and then the chairman shows his true colours or whatever but with Steve Gibson it's a genuine passion. It's not a financial thing, or to push up his own ego or to boost his local standing. It's because he was born a Boro fan.

"He runs the club as a business but he's never been a paid director, which is very different to other clubs. It is a special relationship with the fans. On some of the European trips he's gone around all the bars to thank everyone for coming.

"Yeah, there have always been more chants for Gibson than for McClaren. That's because the chairman's like the fans. He's there for life, thick and thin."