The man has a piece of paper. On it is written ‘Black Ford’ and ‘11.30am’. Up and down, up and down he paces along the footpath, glancing at cars and then at the paper. With the non-note hand, he nudges his sinking spectacles hard against the bridge of his nose, sighs and slumps against a wall. Luton Airport’s pick-up area does this to you.
He shows me the piece of paper. “Have you seen a Black Ford, mate?” I have not the heart to tell him that I couldn’t tell a Ford from a motorbike, that cars have long eluded me, but I settle for what I hope is a sympathetic shake of the head. In front of us, a man in shades performs an Irish jig around a ginger-haired bloke who looks like he wants to cry. Drivers toot and gesticulate at one another, their arms like the branches of some demented tree in the wind. My fatherly lift arrives and we leave the man looking for his Black Ford. It is way after 11.30am.
Football brings me to the Deep South. This is not just any football. This is Middlesbrough. For 27 of my 33 years they have tormented and delighted me. They are my curse and my family. If – and millions are like me here – I put the toil into another pursuit that I do following this football club, I would be useful and perhaps even beautiful. We are going to Wembley, rhythmic, magic-fuelled words when you are lost to this game like I am. Me and 40,000 others, all convincing ourselves that getting the upstairs front seat on the bus or finding 20p on the floor are lucky omens. Not only are we going to Wembley: we are going to win.
On the morning of the game, we travel to 1957. A relative has brought mementoes of his footballing career to show us. There are prim matchday programmes and newspaper clippings gone brittle. He played in the Spartan League, a fair level if you happened to be in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire or beyond in the 1950s. In fonts that take me far away, I read about Boreham Wood and Ruislip FCs, Tring Town and Sandy Albion. ‘Brown’s Brilliant Goalkeeping Prevented an Utter Rout’, a headline shouts at me. Another tells of ‘The Massacre of Stonecross Road’ (Hatfield Town 8 v 3 Baldock Town).
Old adverts take your hand and lead you gently down the high street. J. Hartrop Tobacconist (‘Dutch and English Whiffs’), Days’ Off Licence (‘For all your drink in the home’) and Hollier’s Tuberculin Tested Milk. How about we look in on EC Careless, Ironmonger or Peter Goodfellow with his Distinctive Menswear? And let us not forget that Boreham Wood Cage Bird Society meets on the first Wednesday of every month.
I am still thinking of Bob the Barber and the Hankin Drapery as we jolt and grind through Metroland and into London. The old beast fascinates me. As ever, it is not the parts or buildings I am supposed to be interested in, but the housing estates and scruffy shop parades. All those lives, all those stories, piled together like chaotic toys on a jumble sale table.
This, though, is a football day, and therefore one for the heart rather than the head. My fellow reds swarm around King’s Cross. Half of Middlesbrough is here, the old with steel in their blood and the young who may well have to take their chances elsewhere. Work for the latter has vanished since the days when ‘Made on Teesside’ was chiselled into bridges straddling Sydney Harbour and the Tyne. Here is a town and team whose identities are interspersed. Hope is pinned on shirts with lions on the crest, and hope is important.
The escalators down into the earth are caked red too. I feel wildly, hypnotically optimistic. What is the point of going to football if you don’t? I look across the Tube carriage at my Dad. We were first here to see our team in 1990. I remember flashes of the game, and more about the riot afterwards – Police horses bolting and me picking up a Middlesbrough flag with Doc Marten prints across it, a spoil of war. I still have it. I ask him if he thinks we will win. “Of course we will.” He looks as petrified as I am beginning to feel. Somewhere between Kilburn and Dollis Hill, I am remembering that we actually have to play another team to win, and not a bad one at that. Wembley Way feels like the centre of the world. This is an occasion. We sing our way in. We are going up.
Norwich City score two early goals and the game is over, really, by half-time.
Again and again, I look around our half of the ground, up and down, up and down. We needed this. Our town needed this. All those hopes and stories turned to sadness and thoughts of work tomorrow. The final whistle goes. Other people’s joy is hell. We trudge and dredge away. “I bloody hate Wembley,” says my Dad.