It’s a brave man who offers to recall an away day mauling at the hands of your close neighbours and rivals. But Graham Ridley via Michael Hudson aka @Dolphin Hotel, was prepared to fight back the angst and let his mind drift back to a season defining fixture at Ayresome Park.
By the way, Michael will be giving his own take on Wilko’s Boxing Day smash and grab at St James over the next few weeks too, details coming soon.
There was plenty at stake at both ends of Division Two on May 5th 1990. At the top, just two points separated the Uniteds of Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle. At the bottom, Stoke and Bradford had already been relegated leaving Bournemouth and Middlesbrough scrambling to stay out of the third and final spot. The fixtures could hardly have been scripted any better, Bournemouth hosting Leeds while Middlesbrough – who could only stay up if they won their game and Bournemouth managed no better than a draw – faced a Newcastle side who’d won seven and drawn two of their last nine matches, conceding only five goals in the process.
There was a crowd of just over 18,000 at Ayresome Park on the final afternoon, with Graham Ridley among the 1,200 Newcastle fans (un)lucky enough to get tickets. “I still don’t know how I managed to get one so easily,” he remembers. “Middlesbrough’s pitiful allocation wasn’t a surprise – we’d only got 800 at Elland Road earlier in the season – but there were no computerised loyalty schemes back then and Newcastle had long since dropped the idea of cutting vouchers out of match day programmes.” While most of the travelling supporters were bussed in and out of Middlesbrough, Ridley and two Newcastle fans from Glasgow made the journey by train. “Neither of them had tickets but they obviously got in as the next time I saw them they were being led around the pitch after one of Boro’s goals. If there were any other Newcastle fans in the home end they had the sense to keep quiet,” he says.
Ridley remembers the lack of confidence in the week before the game: “We’d seen the team throw so many points away that season that you felt they were incapable of final-day heroics. There were games like Oldham away and Port Vale at home when we conceded late equalisers. If we’d won those then we would have already been up.” The match commentator was slightly more bullish. “Boro can expect little favour from neighbours Newcastle United,” he predicted as captains Mark Proctor and Roy Aitken posed for pre-match photos. In the event, he couldn’t have been more wrong. “We were beaten before we left the changing rooms,” thinks Ridley. “The midfield and defence were absolutely spineless. To this day there are lots of questions I’d like to put to Roy Aitken.” The ex-Celtic player had over 50 caps for Scotland and would skipper his country in the following month’s World Cup finals, but he was utterly anonymous as, after a nervy start, an increasingly rampant Middlesbrough side ripped Newcastle’s midfield to shreds. “We just collapsed,” Ridley says.
Middlesbrough’s first goal was indicative of the defensive horrors which were to follow. Ray Ranson gave Paul Kerr the time and space he needed to cross long into the area; John Burridge shuffled ineffectually out of goal, leaving behind a space for the criminally unmarked Bernie Slaven to side foot in off the post, Mark Stimson chasing the ball into the net. Slaven celebrated with a trademark leap onto the Holgate fence, the top half of his body dragged into the crowd. The second, on sixty-five minutes, came from a woefully misjudged back header from John Anderson, Slaven beating the goalkeeper to the ball by inches and Ian Baird tapping in the cross on the line. “Burridge was all over the place again. Nobody knew what they were doing.” Five minutes later Newcastle got an unexpected reprieve when Kevin Brock was felled by Colin Cooper to the left of the Middlesbrough penalty area. Aimed straight at the two-man wall, Brock’s free kick was a poor one, but the ball deflected up and into the corner of the net off the unfortunate Owen McGee’s head.
“I don’t remember if the Leeds or Sheffield United scores filtered through,” says Ridley. In any case, the renewed hope only lasted a few minutes. A Burridge goal kick was punted back from halfway, defenders Kevin Scott and Bjorn Kristensen were caught up field as Baird and Slaven suddenly raced clear. Baird had been on-loan at Newcastle five-and-a-half years earlier, picking up one goal, five bookings and a Tyne-Wear derby victory in four starts and a substitute appearance. Now he sealed his old club’s fate, nodding the ball onto his left foot and smacking a first-time shot straight across Burridge. “A superb strike,” Ridley tells me. Slaven got his second in the final minute, turning the ball into an unguarded goal after Proctor’s twenty-yard volley had come back off the post. “Cue wild celebrations and Boro were safe.” In the end, the defeat was immaterial for Newcastle, an estimated 10,000 travelling fans celebrating Sheffield United’s 5-2 win at Leicester City and a Lee Chapman goal sealing the championship for Leeds as Bournemouth – now two points behind Middlesbrough – were relegated to the third division. The result gave Baird a double cause for celebration, the big striker earning a title winners’ medal after playing the first half of the season with the Elland Road club. Among his goals for the champions were two against Newcastle, one of them the winner when the sides met at Leeds.
For Newcastle fans, the worst was yet to come. “On the way home I had to change at Darlington. There were loads of Newcastle fans from Yorkshire there, all coming back from watching the game at St James’.” In the days before internet streams and satellite TV, Newcastle had relayed TV pictures back to a big screen in the middle of the St James’ Park pitch. Like the rest of the afternoon, it ended in disaster. “Everyone was complaining because the club hadn’t thought which way the sun would be shining during the game,” Ridley laughs. “Of course, it ended up directly on the screen, which made it almost impossible for most of the people there to follow what was happening.” The mood wasn’t helped by the news that Newcastle would now have to navigate a two-legged Tyne – Wear derby: “We were on the platform when we found out who we’d have to beat in the play-offs. After watching Billy Askew, Kevin Dillon, Aitken and Mark Stimson earlier in the day there was a sinking feeling among everyone there. I think we knew then that it was all over.”
Many Newcastle fans contend that the subsequent defeat to Sunderland was the best thing that could have happened to the club, paving the way for the Magpie Group’s takeover, the return of Kevin Keegan as manager and promotion to the Premier League as champions in 1992-93. “Not me,” Ridley says, “it was one of the worst days of my life when we lost to them.”