The following article is the first in a new series I’m launching called The Awful Truth. The aim of this series is to take key games from Middlesbrough’s history but rather than tell Boro fans what they already know (or think they remember), I wanted to get the oppositions view on how things really panned out.
Were we really as good as we thought we were in certain matches, or were the opposition really poor. Did we create the amazing atmosphere we thought we did, or was it just a brief noisy 20 mins in the 2nd half?
First to step up to the mark is Sheff Wed fan Tommo (via @Beastie_) from the impressive Owls Alive. The game i asked him to recall was the ill fated day we were relegated from Div 1 on the last day of the 1988-89 season. Despite the significance of the game to Boro fans i.e. relegation, a far bigger issue was still very much in peoples minds that day, namely the Hillsborough disaster… here’s how Tommo recalls the game.
You’re right in that it was a season to forget, for more than one reason, although it started so well. Wednesday were an established top flight side having been promoted 5 years previously after 14 years playing in the lower leagues. Howard Wilkinson was our manager and we’d finished 5th in 1986 but unfortunately English clubs were banned from playing in Europe due to Heysel.
When Wilko left us for Leeds in the October, he left us in a healthy 5th position, but the guy who took over from him (his assistant and ex player Peter Eustace) was useless. I’d applied for the job; I still have the letter from the chairman telling me I wasn’t experienced enough, but I swear to God, I could have done a better job than him because in the 3 months he was manager, he only managed one win, funnily enough, away at Ayresome Park. I went to that one and remember Mel Sterland scoring the winner with a header from a Nigel Worthington Freekick. Oh aye, we had a team full of internationals, but Eustace couldn’t get them to play and we dropped down the division like a stone.
It didn’t help that Sterland signed for Rangers shortly after the Boro game. He’d been our best player, in fact he was our top scorer and after “Zico” left the goals well and truly dried up. By that time we’d dropped into the bottom 3 and it was time to act, so in came Big Ron Atkinson. The first thing that Ron did was break the club transfer record to sign Carlton Palmer. As part of the deal he managed to offload Colin West, who was probably the only person worse at his job than Eustace.
Carlton Palmer made a big difference to us and we started to battle. David Hirst started scoring again and Big Ron signed Steve Whitton and those two formed a partnership that got the goals to take us out of the relegation zone and i think we went as high as 12th or 13th. Then we got hammered away at Liverpool the week before the Hillsborough disaster.
In the immediate aftermath of The Hillsborough Disaster, the club was obviously under a lot of pressure and I don’t know if this affected the players but we went on another bad run and got dragged back towards the relegation places.
I remember losing away at Derby and then we played West Ham at Hillsborough in our first “post Hillsborough” game and the Leppings Lane end was shut, with a big cover over the fencing that had taken so many lives. West Ham had been relocated to the first two blocks of the North Stand, with a block empty and then the home fans beyond that, which was the same set up four days later when Boro came to town. It felt odd. We were shit against West Ham; couldn’t hit a barn door and we dropped back into the bottom three for the first time since Big Ron had taken over.
I remember the game v Boro fairly well. It was nice spring day, I went on the train to Sheffield and bus to the ground. Hillsborough wasn’t a great place to be for anybody though, for obvious reasons. I stood on the Kop looking across at the empty Lep, where all those people had died. Inspite of this, the atmosphere wasn’t bad but Boro had only been given 1500 or so because of the North Stand segregation. I’m sure they would have brought many, many more, which would obviously have helped.
What can’t have helped was that they were sat right next to and staring into the empty terracing of The Leppings Lane end, but they still made a decent effort. They had to. They were there to help their team stay up.
Look, you’re not going to remember THAT much about a game that took place over 20 years ago, but although we needed to win to swap places with Boro, a draw would have been ok because we had the safety net of having another game (against Norwich) 4 days later. Boro didn’t have that luxury and had to win really, unless Luton lost.
I remember Palmer was literally everywhere in the game and we’d got young Dean Barrick on one wing, Dave Bennett on the other and they were causing the Boro defenders bother. The power houses of Whitton and Hirst were up front and I think we had Darren Wood and Nigel Pearson in defence with people like Alan Harper and Nigel Worthington
Boro captain Tony Mowbray, Peter Davenport and Bernie Slaven all had chances but Chris Turner made a couple of decent saves. It was a fairly tense game and I remember us getting a string of corners in the South Stand / Kop corner second half after Hirsty had had one of his trade mark left foot curlers tipped over the bar by the Boro keeper.
Dean Barrick’s cultured left foot took all those corners, 4 or maybe 5 of them and in the end Big Stevie Whitton got his head on the end of one and we scored.
We played the game out and that was it we knew we were safe but Boro’s survival was down to the game at Luton.
I left the ground. I wasn’t really bothered who went down, as long as it wasn’t us and it wasn’t until I got back to the Station and bought a Green Un that I found out that Luton had won with a dodgy penalty that Danny Wilson converted and Boro were down. Fucking Luton eh? They did EXACTLY the same thing to us the following season finishing above us on goal difference.
I guess that’s football.