The festive period is historically a depressing time for Boro fans… if ever the wheels were about to fall off it would invariably happen during our Christmas fixtures (and still does). However, one game that bucked that particular trend was a Boxing Day visit to St James Park in the early 1990’s. I’m pleased to say I was in the away end that day, witnessing a goal that was as bizarre as it was satisfying. Since then I’ve often wondered what the home fans made of that game and the manner of the defeat. Luckily for me, Michael Hudson (aka The Accidental Groundhopper) agreed to pick up the story from the NUFC perspective.
Article by Michael Hudson
Together with the managerial reigns of Joe Kinnear / Graeme Souness / Alan Shearer / Colin Suggett / Sam Allardyce / Jack Charlton / Bill McGarry and Colin Lee. Boxing Day fixtures hold an overwhelmingly negative connotation for supporters of Newcastle United.
In the 24 years that stretch back to Michael O’Neill’s stumble-run, in-off-the-shin winner at Hillsborough during our inglorious 1988-89 relegation season, right through to our Gallic-inspired victory over Championship-bound Bolton Wanderers in 2012, the Magpies have won only 3 times, losing 11.
Here’s another statistic, during the 3 seasons Newcastle and Middlesbrough spent in the second division between 1989 and 1992, the Teessiders won four and drew two of the six games we played, scoring thirteen times and conceding just three. When Middlesbrough visited St James’ Park on December 26th 1991, things were never likely to go well for anyone dressed in black and white stripes.
It was a cold, sunny afternoon, a holiday fixture ensuring a healthy away following that contributed to a crowd of 26,563. The home fans had been less than convinced by Newcastle’s recent form. Ossie Ardiles’ young side had only picked up three points once since beating Grimsby Town 2-0 in November.
Fifteen years old and not yet inured to the near constant pain of following Newcastle United, I saw hopeful signs in Middlesbrough’s poor away form – Lennie Lawrence’s promotion chasing side last won away in early September – whilst their home record boasted five wins, six draws and just a single defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The travelling support had been given the whole of the Leazes End, which, emblematic of a wider malaise, had been half-demolished in 1978 and left roofless while the club attempted to find enough cash to develop it properly. It was at that end of the ground where, eighteen months earlier, Marco Gabbiadini had slipped the ball through a muddy goalmouth and past the crumpled John Burridge to send Sunderland to Wembley and Newcastle into a tailspin which saw Jim Smith replaced by Ardiles and veterans like Burridge, Roy Aitken and Mark McGhee hand over to youth team graduates such as Lee Clark, Steve Howey, Robbie Elliott and Steve Watson, a 17-year-old whose somersault throw-in was the lone highlight of the previous season’s 3-0 defeat at Ayresome Park.
From the outset Middlesbrough – “full of confidence,” according to commentator John Helm – had the better of a scrappy game. An unmarked Bernie Slaven blasting wastefully into the Gallowgate and Tommy Wright twice tipping the ball round the frame of his goal to keep the scores level at the end of a half dominated by the visitors. Newcastle had been dreadful but at least we couldn’t get any worse, could we? Even at St James’ Park, youthful optimism died hard.
In keeping with the time of year, the winning goal was a gift. Newcastle, attempting to push forward but with no control of the ball clumsily lost possession, Curtis Fleming hoisted the ball right-footed from inside the area and suddenly Paul Wilkinson was completely alone in the centre circle and began a lengthy run from his own half. “Where was the Newcastle defence?” Helm asked as Wright tentatively advanced, Wilkinson waiting for him to commit before dinking the ball into the empty net. There were three Middlesbrough players and a despondent Matty Appleby in the shot, Wright angrily lambasting his non-existent defence as the scorer celebrated in front of a tumult of arms and torsos.
Newcastle belatedly mustered an effort of their own, but Andy Hunt headed well wide from a free-kick. “Should have scored,” Helm commented as the home fans held their heads in their hands. “Howay, let’s beat the traffic,” my dad said as Kevin Brock slashed a corner over David Kelly’s head and out for a throw.
The three points lifted Middlesbrough to third in the table, level on points with Blackburn Rovers and leaders Cambridge United. Newcastle were twentieth, kept out of the relegation places by virtue of a slightly better goal difference than both Bristol Rovers and Plymouth Argyle. Middlebrough would eventually go up alongside champions Ipswich Town – Newcastle, it seemed, were going nowhere.
The likeable but hapless Ardiles was eventually sacked a month and a half later, in the wake of a 4-0 New Year’s Day rout at Southend – “You’re not famous anymore” taunted the Roots Hall faithful – and then a dismal 5-2 shellacking by Oxford United. The man who replaced him went on to win four and draw one of six Tyne-Tees meetings as a resurgent Newcastle won the First Division at a canter, qualified for the UEFA Cup, and came third, sixth and second in the Premier League.
If only football could always be that way.