Home for a superboy from Brazil

Simon O'Hagan visits a scene of expanding hope and high football fever; Regeneration game puts ambitious Middlesbrough on the map as Juninho prepares to take Teesside to his heart
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The Independent Online
YOU CAN see the Cellnet Riverside Stadium from a long way away, almost as soon as you leave the centre of Middlesbrough and head east towards the huge expanse of run-down dockland which once reverberated to the sound of shipbuilding, but is now alive with activity of a very different kind.

On a site next to Middlesbrough FC's new ground, work is under way to create a Tall Ships Museum, and with it a restaurants-and-shops development of a kind that no process of urban renewal can be without. But while it is impossible not to feel a sense of unease as making things is replaced by selling things and an old way of life yields once again to the forces of heritage, the regeneration of the town's football club leaves no room for ambivalence.

Like a mirage, the stadium draws you towards it - a gleaming temple of pure white, or so it looks from a distance, whose gracefulness is enhanced by curved corners and delicate arrangement of mast-like supports, a touch intended to evoke the town's nautical past. And in the surrounding confusion of old roads, new roads and roads still being built - none of them, it seems, actually taking you to where you want to go - it is easy to believe that the whole thing might indeed be an illusion. When Middlesbrough played their first match there, against Chelsea at the end of last month, it is said that home supporters were wandering around with no more idea of how to reach the ground than their opposite numbers had.

Close up, the ground is not in fact all-white. Flanking the glass entrance are two imposing, red cylindrical columns, putting one in mind of another ground which seems to have landed from outer space and which imparts a similarly Spielbergian magnetism - the San Siro stadium in Milan. The comparison is not so far-fetched.

A few yards to the left of here is the club shop, where on Friday morning a steady stream of supporters was making its way in and out, the new-found enthusiasm for all things Boro fired even further by the news last week of the pounds 4.7m signing of the Brazilian player of the year, Juninho, from Sao Paulo. It is arguably the greatest transfer coup in the history of English football and a startling indication of the extent of the ambition of a club which has never, in its 119-year existence, made any real impact at the top of the game. The commercial department had also responded quickly. On the floor of the shop lay a heap of Brazil shirts, still in their polythene wrappers.

The reception area was busy too, as supporters came in to collect season- ticket forms from a rapidly dwindling pile behind the front desk. The season-ticket figures are remarkable. More than 17,000 had been sold before the move to the Riverside (capacity 30,000), and last week alone saw the sale of a further 2,000 on the back of the Juninho purchase. Now Middlesbrough are looking at ways to increase the number of season-tickets to 26,000 - this at a club which as recently as nine years ago was getting average gates of 6,000 at the old Ayresome Park ground, and, what is more, was facing extinction.

One man who came in to the shop was Craig Anderson, a 36-year-old commissioning supervisor for Philips Petroleum and a Boro supporter for 25 years. "This is the best thing that could have happened to the town," he said. "It's certainly the most exciting time I can ever remember at the club."

I wondered whether he felt anything had been lost in the process. He seemed slightly affronted. "With respect to what?" Well, the character of the club, perhaps. "No. No. This is marvellous this. Everybody wants to come here now. If this had happened five years ago we'd all have come then. But five years ago we weren't going anywhere." So what was behind it all? The answer came in the form of a clear and emphatic summation. "Bryan Robson's appointment, and Steve Gibson's commitment."

Mr Anderson was absolutely right of course, although you might quibble with the order in which he handed out the credit. For before you get to Robson, a managerial talisman to rank with Kevin Keegan 30 miles up the road at Newcastle, you have first to remember Gibson, the 36-year-old chairman of the club, who in his own way is the Middlesbrough equivalent of Newcastle's Sir John Hall.

Upstairs in his office overlooking the pitch, Gibson said he was flattered to be compared with Sir John. But he was not going to fall at his feet. When I asked Gibson whether he felt he owed a debt to him, he said: "I don't personally. But I feel the North-east generally owes him a debt. He's brought vision and enthusiasm to the area." Newcastle may have set a pioneering standard in all aspects of the game, but Gibson sees them as no more Boro's rivals than any of the other 19 Premier League clubs. If anything, the two clubs come across almost as unofficial partners in the promotion of the North-east. "There was the lovely story last season that when we won, the Newcastle crowd cheered, and when we lost they booed," Gibson said.

Gibson's contribution to the local cause is not to be under- estimated, and his own love of Teesside came through again and again as he spoke of how he started out from unpromising beginnings - the son of a welder, eldest of five children, brought up in one of Middlesbrough's poorest districts - to become, via the chemical haulage business he founded when he was only 22, an extremely rich businessman and saviour of the football club he has supported from the age of seven. "I couldn't imagine being chairman of any other club," he said. He takes pride in the fact that both Sir John and Keegan live on Teesside, not Tyneside.

Looking, if anything, even younger than his years, Gibson was courteous, quietly spoken, and had about him an air of repose that seemed to come straight down from the empty stands of the beautiful stadium in which we were sitting. He became most animated when discussing a newspaper article, written from London, which by way of warning to Juninho sought to portray Teesside as an area of slag heaps and pollution.

"An absolute disgrace," Gibson said. "Slag heaps? Thirty years ago maybe, but not now. I know people who come here and never want to go back. One thing I do know - that writer's never been to Sao Paulo. Now I'm not knocking Sao Paulo ..."

Gibson bought into Middlesbrough when it needed saving from bankruptcy in 1986. He became chairman in 1993, and with the appointment of Robson as manager in May 1994 and the drive towards establishing a new ground showed that he was serious about bringing the club success. Robson responded to the challenge by winning Middlesbrough promotion from the First Division in his first season, and suddenly it was all happening: pounds 5.5m was spent on Nick Barmby, the whole town was galvanised, the Riverside Stadium arose in all its glory, and, most improbably of all, the magic of Middlesbrough was sold to a young man 5,000 miles away who people are saying could be the new Pele. "My ambition now is to win a trophy," Gibson said. That may be no mirage either.