In 1986, Middlesbrough Football Club was on the verge of being thrown into administration. It was Friday 22 August — the eve of the season, and the gates had been padlocked.
Cleveland Police had advised Middlesbrough that they were unable to play their first home game at their then home ground, Ayresome Park. The Football League stated that if Boro were unable to fulfil this fixture then they would face expulsion from the Football League.
At the eleventh hour, a lifeline was thrown to our club from our neighbours and footballing rivals, Hartlepool United who offered Boro the opportunity to play their “home” game against Port Vale at The Victoria Ground with a 6:30 p.m. kick off — after they had played their own home game.
If this offer of solidarity from another north east team hadn’t been made, then Middlesbrough FC might not be here today.
Thirty two years on, it’s January 2018… Hartlepool United are now in the National League, the fifth tier of English football. They now face administration.
The gap between football leagues has never been greater. Premiership “giants” pay millions of pounds to buy players, whilst Hartlepool United are struggling to raise money to even pay players’ wages.
The average cost to attend a football match has rocketed. A day out can exceed a weekly shopping bill, and many working-class fans who have supported their clubs since they were old enough to understand the offside rule, are being priced out of the game.
On Saturday 20 January, Hartlepool played Wrexham at home. This game was to be named “Save ‘Pools Day” and was to repay the solidarity shown in 1986. Boro fans bought around 3,000 tickets of a 7,865 sell out match. Coaches owned by local Teesside firms provided free transport to take Boro fans to the match. I took my ten year old son to the game, who happily stood with the Hartlepool stewards collecting money in buckets.
Football in the north east has a long and proud history among the working class. Football was born out of the steelworks and in the pit villages. Rivalry may be fierce on the pitch and in the terraces, but each club understands what it means to belong to and to show support for its local community.
At the time I’m writing this, Hartlepool United have just managed to pay their players’ wages for another month. It is unclear whether the club will be saved, but they live to fight another day.