As Bad As Things Got: Middlesbrough, 22nd August 1986
With the benefit of a quarter of a century’s remove, the opening of the Riverside Stadium in August 1995 feels like one of the truly symbolic moments of the game’s post-Taylor Report boom. With a capacity of 30,000 seats, this was the largest new stadium that had built in the five years since the report was published, a new citadel on the banks of the River Tees and a radical departure from Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough’s home for the previous 92 years. For supporters of the club, though, the Riverside Stadium represented something else, as well – a bright new future for a club that had spent much of the previous decade and a half on the brink of financial disaster.
On the morning of New Year’s Day 1980, thoughts of impending doom couldn’t have been much further from most supporters’ minds. Boro went into the new years off the back of three consecutive wins. The last of these, against Crystal Palace, had lifted the team to sixth place in the First Division table, one place higher than the club’s record highest ever league finish, which had been achieved by Jack Charlton’s team five years earlier. Charlton had left in 1977, but his replacement, John Neal, had continued his good work. A promising team containing players such as Craig Johnston, David Armstrong and Mark Proctor seemed well set to solidify their position in the top half of the top division.
Within a couple of years, however, the club’s future didn’t seem quite as bright. After finishing the 1979/80 season in ninth place in the table, the following season saw them finish fourteenth. The summer of 1981, however, proved to be a difficult one for the club. Neal left in July to replace Geoff Hurst as the manager of Chelsea. A month later, Johnston left Ayresome Park for Anfield for £650,000 while David Armstrong departed for Southampton for £720,000 and Proctor went to Nottingham Forest for £440,000. Neal’s replacement was Bobby Murdoch, who’d been Jack Charlton’s first signing for the club eight years earlier. Murdoch had retired from playing in 1976 and had been spent the previous five years as one of the club’s youth team coaches, but with Boro having sold three of its best players that summer, in itself a canary in the coalmine for the club’s financial position, and Murdoch having no actual managerial experience, it felt like a risky appointment from the outset. Two wins and a draw from their last three matches of the 1981/82 season wasn’t enough to save Middlesbrough’s place in the First Division.
There was no spectacular implosion about this relegation. They finished the season five points adrift of safety, with their biggest problem being a lack of the goals that Johnston, Armstrong and Proctor were so adept at both scoring and creating. Middlesbrough only conceded 52 goals in their 42 matches, but they only scored 34, the second lowest in the division. But more significantly in terms of the club’s future, changes were also happening at a boardroom level. Charles Amer had been on the club’s board of directors since 1963 and had been chairman since 1973. He’d been the man who brought Jack Charlton to Ayresome Park. But on Valentine’s Day 1982 he resigned his position, to be replaced by George Kitching.
This sequence of events hinted at a calamitous broader picture. Middlesbrough were haemorrhaging money, with the club’s annual accounts for 1981 showing a loss of more than £300,000. Bobby Murdoch lasted through the summer and into the new season, but he was replaced in September 1982 by Harold Sheperdson, who’d been Alf Ramsey’s assistant during the 1966 World Cup finals, taking the job on a caretaker basis until a replacement could be found. In the same month, Kitching’s brief period as chairman of the club came to an end, and he was replaced by local businessman Mike McCullagh, with Keith Varley as vice-chairman.
One of McCullagh’s first decisions over who to bring in to replace Bobby Murdoch, and his decision brought a fresh wave of attention to Ayresome Park. Malcolm Allison’s stock had fallen somewhat since his more successful period as assistant to Joe Mercer at Manchester City. An unsuccessful return to Maine Road had damaged his reputation, just he had done so earlier when he received a Football Association disrepute charge after a News of the World photograph appeared showing him in the Crystal Palace players’ bath with the glamour model Fiona Richmond in 1976. Allison was an extremely capable coach, but there were concerns that he was past his best by the time he left Manchester City for a second time. He had, however, rehabilitated his reputation somewhat in Portugal. He took the job as head coach of Lisbon’s Sporting Club in 1981, and ended the 1981/82 season with a Portuguese league and cup double. It would be Sporting’s last league title until 2000.
Allison’s team ended his first season in charge in sixteenth place in the Second Division. The appointment might have brought any more attention to the club, but it hadn’t brought the club any more money. Crowds were continuing to fall, and financial losses remained uncomfortably high. The 1983/84 season saw Middlesbrough fighting against relegation, and in March 1984 when Allison was sacked following a post-match interview in which he claimed that “Middlesbrough have six weeks to live” and “It is better to die than face a lingering death.” The club was losing £10,000 a week by this time, but Allison’s ill-judged comments turned out to be his post-script as Middlesbrough’s manager.
He was sacked shortly afterwards, and Jack Charlton returned to steer the club just clear of the Second Division relegation places. The long-term replacement was another former player. Willie Maddren had played for the club from 1969 to 1979 and had returned as physiotherapist upon Malcolm Allison’s arrival. The 1984/85 season ended with the club only avoiding relegation to the Third Division on the last day, though, and the following year turned out to be even worse. By the end of 1985 crowds had fallen to just 4,000 and the annual accounts revealed the club to be more than £1m in debt. With thirteen games of the season left to play Maddren was sacked – his spell as manager may now be broadly considered an uphill battle that he could never have won – and he replaced by the former Aston Villa defender Bruce Rioch, whose only previous managerial experience in this country had come with a couple of years at Torquay United, earlier in the decade.
Rioch brought a little hope of surviving relegation with some critical wins, but it wasn’t quite enough. A 2-1 defeat at Shrewsbury Town on the last day of the season confirmed Middlesbrough’s relegation to the Third Division for only the second time in their history. With this relegation, the floodgates opened. Mike McCullagh had quit in the spring of 1985, but his replacement, Alf Duffield, had been unable to turn the club’s desperate financial position around. His money had just about kept the club functioning on a day to day basis, but he resigned towards the end of the 1985/86 season following an argument with Bruce Rioch.
Further investigation showed the club’s debts to be £2m rather than the £1m that had previously been believed to be the true figure. In addition to loans from himself, Duffield had also been borrowing money from banks to keep the club going, but with relegation and attendances having atrophied – as they had almost everywhere over the first half of the decade – Middlesbrough’s financial position had become impossible. On the 21st May 1986, the club called in the provisional liquidator. A few weeks later, towards the end of July, the Inland Revenue took the club to court over unpaid taxes. Middlesbrough owed £115,156 and the judge issued a winding up order.
On the 2nd August 1986, Rioch and twenty-nine other non-playing staff were sacked and the gates to Ayresome Park were padlocked. Some players chose to remain and train with Rioch, but others chose to leave instead. There were three weeks to go before the start of the new season, and what was left of the club didn’t even seem to have its own ground any more. The story made national news headlines. Middlesbrough had been a First Division club just four years earlier, and Ayresome Park had been one of the venues for the 1966 World Cup finals. The image of the famous gates there padlocked shut became an arresting visual metaphor for the state of the game in this country at the time in a broader sense.
The question of whether Middlesbrough could even start the 1986/87 season remained in the air until the night before the first match of the new season. The club were still locked out of Ayresome Park, but they’d reached a temporary agreement to share Victoria Park with Hartlepool United, and their first match back in Division Three against Port Vale could go ahead, if the club’s financial survival could be guaranteed. Haulage company owner Steve Gibson, who’d joined the board of directors a couple of years earlier, was the club’s best hope.
Gibson was a Boro fan who was doing well for himself through his company Bulkhall, but he didn’t have the means at the time to be able to go it alone, so he spent the summer fighting to find investors for a new consortium to keep the club alive. The local council, ICI, and the brewers Scottish & Newcastle were amongst those contacted, while an advertisement was placed in The Times seeking investors, but the path to survival was riddled with potholes. Three days before the start of the season, the Football League confirmed that the club had to have £350,000 in working capital and show it could pay all creditors 100 pence in the pound. ICI agreed a bond. The consortium itself put in £825,000.
On Friday 22nd August, a meeting was held to as one final throw of the dice, and with ten minutes to spare before the registration deadline, the documents were signed to form a new company called Middlesbrough Football & Athletic Club (1986) Ltd., with a board formed of Steve Gibson, Graham Fordy, Reg Corbridge and Henry Moszkowicz, with Colin Henderson, who’d brokered the all-important deal with ICI, as the chairman. By the narrowest of margins, Middlesbrough had been saved. It was too late to move the first match of the new season back to Ayresome Park. The following day, Middlesbrough made their first Third Division appearance against Port Vale in front of just 3,640 supporters at Victoria Park, with Archie Stephens scoring both of their goals.
With Rioch still in charge – he’d continued to take training even after being sacked three weeks earlier – Middlesbrough went unbeaten for their first nine matches of the season, and by the time of their first defeat at home to Blackpool in October crowds had swollen to more than 10,000. There would be ongoing issues for the new company throughout the season, with creditors of the old one continuing to come forward, but on the pitch Rioch had shown the coaching skills of an alchemist, taking the team to the runners-up place in the Third Division by the end of the season. The following year, he surpassed even this, returning the club to the First Division via the play-offs. It was one of the most extraordinary transformation in the fortunes of a football club of the entire decade.
With Middlesbrough’s future secured, there were further changes afoot for the club. The publication of the Taylor Report in 1990 confirmed that Ayresome Park would have to become all-seater by 1994, and such a change could reduce the ground’s capacity to just 20,000. The club, therefore, took the momentous decision in 1993 to leave their home for a new site. The Teesside Development Corporation offered them one by the River Tees for development, and work started on the £16m construction project in the autumn of 1994, taking nine months to complete. Middlesbrough played their first match their new home, the Riverside Stadium, on the 26th August 1995 against Chelsea in the Premier League. Its capacity was extended to 35,000 three years later. Steve Gibson – who was just 28 years old at the time of the great rescue of 1986 – remains the club’s chairman to this day.
Things might easily have been very different, though. The saving of Middlesbrough as a club – if not as a limited company – came by the finest of possible margins, but things could have gone very differently indeed, had it not been for the intervention of those who wouldn’t allow the club to perish. With the benefit of hindsight it could be tempting to believe that everything that happened throughout the summer of 1986 on Teesside was for a reason, but the events of the 22nd August 1986 turned out to be a closer shave than anybody could have been comfortable with. They change the fortunes of this particular football club, forever.