Thanks Boro; wonderful Teesside needed that

Date published: Monday 9th May 2016 9:18

Boro are going up. Yes! Get in! It feels so good to be a Boro fan today, but then it feels good most of the time.

Middlesbrough is a small town with a population of just over 140,000. Whatever happens at the football club quite profoundly affects the town and the region as a whole. When the ground is full, it represents about a quarter of the town’s population. It is a club that is held to the collective bosom very tightly. Even Teessiders who don’t follow football still like to see Boro do well.

On Saturday we were promoted to the Premier League and, my God, it is a welcome ray of sunshine in a dark year for the region.

The Teesside diaspora is global. As industries have come and gone, the region has exported a lot of labour to almost everywhere. We all left in search of a living. I eventually washed up in Edinburgh via Newcastle, Inverness, southern California, Yorkshire and Norfolk, but the Boro remains a hot coal in the blast furnace of all of our lives, an important part of our cultural DNA.

And Saturday was a glorious moment for all of us, even for me, who would usually rather win more often in a lower league than hang on for grim death in the top flight. But this time was different.

The region badly needs a reason to smile. This season’s promotion to the Premier League will give us access to a huge amount of money, right at the time when the whole area is undergoing profound economic difficulties and has, not for the first time, largely been ignored by the political classes who seem to think northern means Manchester or Leeds, both places that always seemed a long way south.

As the steel industry, an industry which helped both create and define the region, and which helped build the industrial world, is allowed to collapse, without any understanding of either the social and economic effects – nor of the cutural outwash it will cause – it didn’t surprise any of us. We’re used to being ignored.

Maybe this promotion will make us harder to ignore in the future.

Look, you can’t find Teesside on a map, and I mean that literally. Teesside is an almost mythic socio-cultural construct that exists and lives only in the hearts of its citizens. Ask us where Teesside stops and starts and we all feel like we know, but there are no geo-political boundries to define it. So when you’ve got a region that relies on a self-created identity for its very definition, it goes some way to explaining the passion so many of us have for it, wherever we are in the world. We are Teesside and Teesside is us.

But by God, we needed this promotion to give Teesside some joy. This year we lost BBC Tees star and forever golden soul Ali Brownlee and now he is celebrated on the terraces. The people who express and promulgate our cause are our heroes. This was for him. Maybe somehow, cosmically, it happened because of him. Bless you, Ali.

You see, Middlesbrough FC isn’t a normal football club, and by modern standards its chairman, Steve Gibson, is not a normal chairman. Putting his crucial financial support to one side, he fundamentally understands that the football club is the people’s club, and that its role in local society is not merely as part of the entertainment industry, it is also to do with soul, roots and identity. He understands that in an often chronically poor area, supporting the Boro is all that some supporters own.

When he called a tin-eared local Tory MP, James Wharton “an absolute clown” for saying Teesside was “doing well”, just after the closure of Redcar steelworks, he bloody meant it, and Steve was right.

Steve Gibson is our champion. In every sense.

When Boro were relegated seven years ago, it was largely because we had unsustainable debt as a hangover from our peak years of cup and European success. Gibson had to reboot the whole place financially and ensure that the club survived, first and foremost. Once that had been achieved, he set about funding another push for success, a push which culminated on Saturday.

We all owe him something. Steve Gibson is, genuinely and objectively, an extraordinary man, both a visionary and idealist, but also a practical, hard-headed, almost old-fashioned businessman, to whom the ostentation of wealth is anathema, in an era where bending the knee to money has become a default.

And he’s always there. Home or away. Loyal. Committed. Boro.

And as a Boro lad himself, he knows as well as any of us that you can’t not keep your feet on the ground when you’re from Teesside. A warmer, straight-forward, unpretentious and funnier bunch of people you won’t find anywhere.

This is a region that understands the power of the collective over the cult of individualism. Possibly because the area is unknown by much of the country, we are very supportive of our own, as I have good cause to know. My ten Nick Guymer novels are all set on Teesside, and the encouragement and support I get from readers and media in the area has been both humbling and unstinting.

Being brought up on Teesside made me more of an indefatigable ornery sod than I ever knew, at least until later in life. When the going gets tough, Teesside has made us all tough enough to keep going. It’s what my pal Dan calls your ‘Inner Boro’ – that indivisible, hard core of cultural pig iron which will not give in, will not give way and will not bow down, son. No chance.

We’re tired of Teesside not being taken seriously, we’re tired of being ignored and of being an industrial revolution leftover. We’re so much more than that. So, inspired by Boro’s magnificent season, I’m going to do what it takes to get my novels made into movies on Teesside, made with Teesside people, to further put it on the national map, to celebrate the area, to tell a different story to the one that mainstream media always focuses on, to tell our story as a people, to show that we’re strong, funny, resolute and gnarly folk, made of both physical and cultural gristle. And to show off our wonderful, elusive accent, with its propensity to draw out vowels, and end a sentence with ‘like’, like.

As many do, I feel like I owe the place something. It forged me as a man, the way our steel river forged the modern world.

We’re tougher than the world knows, and no-one can close us down and walk away. Teesside is a place like no other and it can be a place where dreams can come true, where you can fall in love and be who you want to be. It is not defined by its economic deprivation or by whatever the southern media thinks it is.

Teesside is a great place with mighty towns, so many times kicked when down, but I tell you this, everything they’ve tried to kill, we will rebuild.

Now and forever. C’mon, Boro!

John Nicholson

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