Steel river runs dry

This is the original version, just for a bit of difference, of my piece on Middlesbrough Football Club and Teesside steel’s demise. It originally appeared in When Saturday Comes and on the guardian website last month.

Middlesbrough versus Leeds United, kick-off drawing close. Autumn sun rages, hope charges the Sunday air. Teesside has a cause beyond three points. The last of its steelworks, at Redcar, is threatened with closure by owners SSI, but defiance reigns. ‘SOS’ (Save Our Steel) say the t-shirts the players wear during the warm-up, and the card display and banners behind each goal.

This area’s anthem, Chris Rea’s Steel River, plays on the tannoy, sprinkling goosebumps upon thousands of us. In the days before the game, Boro’s adored chairman and owner, Steve Gibson, has issued a statement beseeching Westminster to intervene and rescue industrial Teesside’s heritage and its future. “I’ve been here 22 months,” says manager Aitor Karanka, a Basque, in his pre-match press conference, “but I know how important the industry is.” With Leeds swatted aside 3-0, Karanka dedicates victory to the steelworkers.

Twenty days on, autumn has dimmed the light and blown the air cool. Middlesbrough versus Fulham, kick-off drawing close. The Riverside’s giant screen, paid for by a pawnbroker chain, flashes with images of steelmaking through the years. Forty-or-so steelworkers walk slowly around the pitch, applauded throughout the stands like wounded soldiers returning from war. Twenty-four hours previously, a final batch of red hot coke has rolled from the Redcar blast furnace, and a final shift has been worked. They, and 1,700 others, are the last in a line stretching back 170 years. Redcar is to close. Hope is extinguishing with every furnace flame that simmers and fades.

There is a collective sense of bereavement, rawest for all match-going steelworkers and their kin, but felt across the stadium. It has afflicted Middlesbrough players too. Before the visit of Fulham, local lads Ben Gibson, the chairman’s nephew, and Stewart Downing have spoken of the area’s pain, and of having friends rendered suddenly workless.

Boro and Fulham is a stalemate. Afterwards, Steve Gibson gives a robust, impassioned interview to The Times. As is so often the case, he airs our thoughts. “Where was the government?” he asks, before labelling local Tory MP James Wharton, Northern Powerhouse minister, no less, “an absolute clown.” We have entered the anger stage of bereavement, and it will linger for years.

Feelings are particularly sharp because there is historical context and richness. Middlesbrough football and iron then steel have long been allies. Football clubs in the town arose shortly after iron ore was discovered in the Cleveland Hills in 1850. That breakthrough unleashed a boom. Middlesbrough flourished from hamlet to industrial behemoth, in Gladstone’s words ‘an Infant Hercules’. Migrant grafters flocked to the town. They needed Saturday escape. In 1876, Middlesbrough Football Club was founded, its early nickname ‘The Ironsiders’. Thirteen years on, another team came into being: the magnificently-named Middlesbrough Ironopolis.

Despite joining Division Two at the same time as Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle, Ironopolis slipped away, bankrupt, in 1894. Boro had the monopoly. Steelworkers flocked to Ayresome Park, light relief from their filthy, grinding work. Over the years, the foundries also provided the club with a steady harvest of players, including two of their finest, George Hardwick and Wilf Mannion. Both left steel employment to sign for Boro. As they cast their spells upon the Ayresome green, young Brian Clough knocked a ball around the steelworks pitches behind the family home.

Throughout the twentieth century, generations of those who staffed Teesside’s clanking, hissing industries pushed the turnstiles. ICI shifts were organised around home matches. When I attended my first game in 1988 – the year British Steel was privatised – works-emblazoned donkey jackets were common, if never fashionable.

In the Riverside era, save for a similar, successful SOS campaign in 2011, links between the club and steel became less tangible – indeed, as many a cynic is swift to counter, the stadium main frame was built from German steel. Yet steelworkers and their families continued to watch the team and, in this nostalgic age, most modern Teessiders can reel off their area’s greatest exports, from Sydney Harbour Bridge to the Wembley Arch. Certainly tangible is an almighty pride in what was.

At the end of October, Boro visited Old Trafford for a league cup tie they were to win on penalties. During the game, many among the 10,000 travelling fans illuminated the night air by holding aloft mobile phone torches. It was a show of support for steelworkers who had lost their jobs, an act of resilience and an assertion of continuing shared identity. Middlesbrough Football Club’s role as a beacon for the area has taken on a new level of significance. Sometimes it feels like all we have left.


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