508 miles. 17 hours. England’s answer to Siberia. Middlesbrough away is a once in a lifetime trip - largely because no sane person ever wants to go back. Not that it wasn’t an enjoyable day out, just that the novelty would surely not extend to a second visit. Comparisons with Siberia may be an exaggeration, but not a large one, given Middlesbrough’s most striking feature was its vast emptiness.
At one o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, you would expect more signs of life than the occasional passing car. Standing by the river, it was like a scene from the wastelands of Blade Runner 2049, just without Ryan Gosling’s picturesque countenance to admire. The desolate skyline and dated architecture really do not help shift its dystopian image either. While it is a perfectly fine stadium, The Riverside just feels isolated from all civilisation. Say what you want about the Madejski, but a Cosco would have gentrified this area of Teesside.
Maybe this is all a bit harsh on Middlesbrough. There will be people who love the town and judging a place after only spending a matter of hours there is probably unfair. Still, first impressions last and Woodgate’s side committed daylight robbery, so their town’s reputation must suffer the consequences.
Seeing your team lose away from home is a double disappointment. Not only do you have to see a Reading defeat, but then swallow the sombre trip home too. At least when Reading lost against Charlton Athletic, you can be home and forgetting about the game within the hour. From Middlesbrough, not so much. Not even the Waitrose at Warwick services could lift the spirits of the returning Royals fans. On the bright side, a six-hour return trip is a lot of time to assess a game of football.
Yet, even the football itself was affixed with a northern disposition. Middlesbrough can join Stoke City in the Very Windy Ground Club, with every pass threatening to verve off course. To make things worse, the away fans were stowed away in the upper rafters. There were certainly plenty of empty seats behind the goal, so it is obviously a cheap ploy to keep the away fans out of the game. A ploy that cheapens the experience for everyone.
By putting the away fans so far away from the action, the home side threaten to take away much of the emotion of the game. When sitting near the pitch, you can hear the tackles or the shouts from the players and feel involved in the match. By increasing the physical distance from the pitch, the emotional distance increases in tandem. Club 1871 have encouraged fans to be closer to the front of the South Stand for that same reason. A lively away support can often positively impact the home fans and, naturally, it is in everybody’s best interest to have a great atmosphere at a game.
Regardless, this game was the purest example of the Championship. Reading created more chances, had more shots, more possession, more style and yet still fell to a 1-0 defeat. Marvin Johnson’s winner felt at home in Teesside. His wide free kick was fluffed by Ashley Fletcher and evaded every defender on its journey to the bottom corner. This is why teams so rarely go on long unbeaten runs in the Championship – because you have to travel to places like Middlesbrough and avoid getting Middlesbrough-ed.
You can play nice passing football, as Reading did. You can create numerous chances, as Reading did. You can defend resolutely, as Reading did. What you can’t always do is account for that intangible nonsense factor that seems to increase the farther away from home you go. Maybe that was why José Gomes elected for his Plan B: playing all the strikers. Just forego any patient build-up play and hope for those lucky bounces in the box. Unfortunately, it didn’t work on Saturday and Gomes faces questions over his substitutions once again.
Hopefully, this game will go down as the forewarning to a run of great form. The performance signalled as much. A win against Blackburn Rovers and everyone starts looking up the table again so no need for panic yet.
Man of the match: John Swift. Keeps creating chances. Not his fault that Reading aren’t scoring.
Food court: 8/10. Pre-match burger was nigh-on highlight of the day. I’m no Jamie Oliver, but it was hot, cheap and I haven’t got food poisoning.
The Middlesbrough Experience: 5/10. A long, long trip for a disappointing result. The football was entertaining enough, despite the frustration of another loss. A curious town that I would recommend visiting once, because Middlesbrough was so bizarrely empty and dire that it was amusing. Though, it was mainly just dire. Absolutely rock bottom for matchday music too. Away fans have had eardrums too.