The experienced and successful Gordon Strachan had come in to take over the reigns but found his charges dead and lame rather than straining at the bridle so the club is hanging grimly on until the transfer window opens in January for an infusion of fresh blood and talent. A brave cohort of 20,000 souls braved the snow and ice around The Riverside for the visit of Scunthorpe, curse of office mail sweeping software everywhere (work it out!). Like us, a provincial town with a background in the steel industry, this is probably their golden age, rising to the second tier of English football for the third time in the past 50 years.
The game began surprisingly brightly as we looked pretty threatening and Lita shot wide early on when it was probably easier to hit the target. The bright start continued with a dodgy penalty decision going in our favor, and if the penalty was dodgy, the decision to send the defender off for a professional foul into the bargain was as bent as a $3 note (it’s got Nixon on it). Boro the proceeded to toy with their wounded opponent as a bored cat would a three-legged mouse and after hitting the woodwork twice, doubled the lead a minute from half-time – of course when I was halfway down the stair en route to the toilet and snack bar. Ineffectual French striker Jeremie Aliadiere scored a fortunate third a minute into the second half and I recognized the strange feeling swelling up in side and around the ground like a fog as relief – relief that the points were in the bag, that the team were looking dangerous and in control and that we could actually enjoy 45 minutes of football again. 3-0 was the final score and as big a result as getting back to the car in one piece on the treacherous ice field that doubled as a thoroughfare on the way back to the car.
Two days later, me and 4189 other Teessiders made the short hop down the M1 to Barnsley, lower mid table and a perennial Championship side. This would be a true test on how far we had stabilized. After parking up at a sports center near the ground, we were herded into a sports hall converted into a Christmas party venue for the season with a huge video screen and weak beer available for all. Barnsley is an old-fashioned Yorkshire mining town and was at the epicenter of the cataclysmic (for them) miners strike in the 1980s when the majority of coal mines in the country were closed down for good. It is arguable if any of the towns and cities effected had recovered, let alone many. Oakwell itself is a ground with three new stands surrounding the original main stand which would have been the crowning glory back in the 1930s when it was built but now looks not unlike a garden shed in the garden of a three storey block of executive apartments.
The match started brightly for Boro and they took the lead again with a fluke cross from Justin Hoyte which deluded everybody in the Barnsley defence and floated into the far corner. Delirium for the travelling Teessiders and the first rendition of Jingle Bells I had heard for many a month – (Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way; Oh what fun it is to see The Boro win away, Hey!) but this was as good as it got. Barnsley came at us like a tweeking meth-head and our powder-puff midfield and defence couldn’t cope. Folding faster than Superman on laundry day, 1-0 up turned to 2-1 down and stayed that way. My dad and I broke our own rule of never leaving before the end of the match and were out of Barnsley and on the way back north when the final whistle blew.
When you watch a team for long enough, or know the inherent character of a club like I do, you know when things aren’t going to go your way so it was safe on this occasion to leave.
I enjoyed my trip back to England for the holidays and it is a shame I won’t be able to see Manchester City take ample revenge for their 8-1 destruction of 18 months ago on Saturday but I have a life outside football now, it’s in the United States and like that other exiled English writer Thomas Paine before me – I’m here to spread some Common Sense amongst my young Yankee friends.