Monday 4 May ~

The immediate future is looking bleak for Middlesbrough. But things have been worse – in WSC 201 (November 2003) John Lymer looked back to 1986 when Steve Gibson stepped in to save the club from extinction

The bond between Middlesbrough’s chairman, Steve Gibson, and the club’s supporters is uncommon in both its intensity and its longevity. This is because when the club was at its lowest ebb, Gibson acted as any of us would have done, rescuing the club from a seemingly impossible position and sticking valiantly to the task of rebuilding and transforming it.

In the summer of 1986, Middlesbrough FC col­lapsed and was officially pronounced dead on local television. A long illness had begun with the departure of man­ager Jack Charlton in 1977. Charlton left a side he rated as “one player short of winning the League” and the rot set in. Players left, standards de­clined, crowds dwindled. Boro were relegated in 1982 and struggled against further demotion for the next four sea­sons. In April 1985, a loan of £30,000 was obtained from the Professional Footballers’ Association to pay play­ers’ wages. Then, in the final game of the 1985-86 season, Boro slipped meekly into the Third Division and imploded.

During the close season, the Inland Revenue claim­ed over £100,000 in tax arrears, which the club were unable to afford. The judge in the subsequent court case issued a winding-up order against Boro, who had been in the hands of a liquidator since May. And that should have been that. It had been a long time coming and many fans felt a slight sense of relief that it was finally over. But then, in typical Boro fashion, a desperate fight to save the club began and the awful, nagging feeling of hope began to gnaw away at us.

The result of this fight was a gut-wrenchingly ag­onising start to the 1986-87 season. The club had officially been saved with only ten minutes to spare before the expiry of a Football League deadline by a consortium driven by Steve Gibson and backed by the chemical company ICI. The euphoria was short lived. The authorities had granted Middlesbrough continued League status on the proviso that they could fulfil their first fixture, a home game against Port Vale. Ayresome Park, however, was in no fit state to host a football match, its famous iron gates had been chain­ed up and behind them the decay had taken its toll.

A solution seemed to have been found when it was an­nounced that arrangements had been made to play at Hartlepool’s Victoria Park, but Port Vale, in a move that will forever endear them to Middlesbrough supporters, objected. This wonderfully sporting ges­ture was somewhat surprising, given that Middlesbrough were asking to play their first home game away from home. After an anxious wait, the Football League over­ruled Vale’s objections and allowed the game to go ahead.

On August 23, 1986, a modest 3,690 supporters made the short journey to Hartlepool, their mood far from buoyed by rumours that the financial picture painted when the club was wound up was far from accurate. Creditors were continually coming forward and debts believed to have been around £800,000 began to rise to over £2 million. Against this backdrop, there was a feeling that ICI’s commitment to the cause was only good for so much debt.

An untidy game fin­ished two each, with both of Boro’s goals scored by Archie Stephens, and nobody was really sure how long we could strug­gle on. The game itself seemed to per­fectly reflect the club’s current situation of hope tem­p­ered by the continual emergence of fur­ther hurdles to overcome. Leading 2-0 at half-time, Boro had allowed them­selves to be dragged back to parity. Middlesbrough were still very much hanging by a thread.

Quite staggeringly, the game at Hart­lepool, while locked out of our own ground, proved to be a genuine turning point. The club which had allowed itself to fizzle out apathetically had developed a new mood of optimism and determination. The consortium fought hard to stabilise the finances and the team were successful on the pitch, gaining successive promotions to the First Division. A heady atmosphere erup­ted from the years of gloom and, gradually, the game at Victoria Park came to be viewed with fondness and pride. Few, if any, who were there could have envisaged that the club would evolve to the point where we would field teams packed with stars such as Phil Stamp, Noel Whelan and Dean Windass.

Comments (4)
Comment by mike196 2009-05-05 06:50:54

As Boro fans we probably need to be reminded of the 1986 watershed during the kind of times we're experiencing currently. Great article.

Comment by born toulouse 2009-05-05 09:25:03

Thoroughly enjoyable read that adds a bit of balance to the end of season premier league relegation apocalypse hysteria that dominates a lot of the media.

Pools played at the Victoria Ground in the '80s though, not Victoria Park. The name change was the idea of a property developing sleaze bag who also bounced a testimonial cheque on Cyril Knowles' widow.At least his plan to change our name to Hartlepool Marina failed.

Comment by jackofalltrades 2009-05-05 09:37:48

Great article.

I'm a Newcastle fan and with the Newcastle/Boro game uppermost in everyone's mind right now, it's worth comparing the Newcastle ownership over the same period.

Sir John Hall talked as if he was some local-boy-made-good benefactor ("I had to ask Lady Mary if we could sell another painting to buy a centre-half" was one outrageous claim I remember), followed by Freddie Shepherd, who still acts as if he was some kind of lovingly-elected man-of-the-people; between the two of them they milked £100's million from the club, plunged it into serious debt (basically putting debt into one side of the business, and income into another, then paying themselves massive dividends from the 'profitable' half). And currently, we have Mike Ashley, who's bought a toy and is now crying because he's broken it - electing 20 managers between them to carry the can.

Contrast and compare with Gibbo, who enjoys the popularity they all want and provides the stability that all clubs need. He's backed his (handfull of) managers and made every decision not just for the good of the club, but for the region and it's totally appropriate that he should be applauded, and appreciated by the fans.

I genuinely wish that all three North-East teams could stay in the Premiership, but someone's going to go. If it's Boro, you know you'd be okay and that you'd be back next year.

With the problems at Newcastle, if we go down, there's a real fear that Ashley will flounder further, and that we could follow Norwich, Southampton and Charlton out of the Championship too. I'm sure we all remember the Norwich owner, asking for a twelth man - in Gibbo, I think Boro have one.

I can't help being jealous that his loyalties weren't a few miles further north.

Comment by sw2boro 2009-05-05 10:37:15

jack - thanks for the non-partisan comment!

As I've alluded to here before, the local rumour mill (I Hear it Through the Tontine) would have it that we're not as financially safe as some might think - even if we stay up.
Hopefully it's not an omen that in the dark days of the 80s, the town itself was so skint that Woolworths shut down and left empty premises...

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