No tedious links, no convoluted intros; there was only one possible choice for this week’s Viva Video clip. Last game of the season tomorrow; Rovers at Middlesbrough, so episode 126 of this series could only ever feature the last game of the season; Rovers v Middlesbrough. Twenty-four years ago, give or take a couple of days, the Teesiders came to Doncaster for the final game of a remarkable season.
1986-87 was to be a successful season for Middlesbrough, though the prospect of that being the case was unthinkable at its culmination. Relegated from the second tier in May 1986, ‘Boro were in a terrible mess. Insurmountable debts forced the club to call in a provisional liquidator just weeks after the season’s end, and their future would remain in jeopardy throughout the close season as they faced a winding-up order from the Inland Revenue.
Three weeks before the new season was due to begin, manager Bruce Rioch and his entire playing staff were sacked by the receivers, but negotiations continued to keep the club afloat. Eventually, Middlesbrough’s place in the Football League was secured, less than twenty-four hours before the opening game and just ten minutes before the registration deadline. Their future secured ‘Boro began the season with a home game against Port Vale, albeit one played at Hartlepool as they had been locked out of their own Ayresome Park by the Receivers.
Incredibly, despite such a disrupted pre-season Middlesbrough got off to an impressive start as their young side went the opening nine game without defeat. In an eight game run from November to December ‘Boro kept an impressive seven clean sheets, with only Chester breaching their resolute defence. Middlesbrough’s form continued, but for a blip in February and March, and by the time they came to Belle Vue for the final game their promotion back to Division Two had been guaranteed. However, despite a 2-0 victory over Rovers, Bournemouth’s home victory over Rotherham meant the title would fall just out of reach.
This ‘Boro side may have been raw, but they were certainly talented. Five of the side would go on to earn international honours in the future; defenders Gary Pallister, Colin Cooper and Alan Kernaghan plus midfielder Stuart Ripley and striker Bernie Slaven. The Teesiders also boasted future management talent in their ranks in the form of Brian Laws and one Tony Mowbray, who was only 24 at the time of this game, but already in his second year as club captain and presumably looking just as world-weary as he will tomorrow as he stands in the technical area at the Riverside.
Rovers had talent in their midst too of course with a side including Brian Deane and Neil Redfearn who would both go on to better things. The signs of difficult years to come though were evident all around the ground; the Cow Shed at the Town end of the ground had been dismantled after the Bradford fire two years previously, and just days before this fixture the Pop Side was condemned due to subsidence (hence the ‘Boro fans creeping along the near touchline towards the final whistle). With the match all-ticket owing to ‘Boro’s imminent promotion and the club Ticket Office refusing to offer reissues for those who had purchased tickets for the Pop many Rovers fans stayed away and as such the majority of the 3,556 in attendance had come from the North East for a much deserved party.
The frivolities were already beginning in the first half as shown by the mini-pitch invasion for Gary Hamilton’s opening goal, a trend continued for the second goal, hence Stuart Ripley being joined on his trot back to halfway for kick-off by several travelling fans. By the final few minutes the scenes are chaotic and no doubt alien to any fans under twenty-five, with Boro’ fans lining the touchlines to the extent that one long-range strike is nearly glanced inside the near-post by a Middlesbrough fan.
It’s remarkable how scenes which would have tabloids baying for blood now are treated as if the norm by so many of the players; the composure of Rovers’ keeper Gary Rhodes, despite having to race supporters to the ball on goal-kicks, being particularly impressive. Despite the mumblings of the cameraman that “they want reporting to the FA”, its hard to see anything malicious in the celebrations and pitch invasions, just a large bunch of supporters rejoicing at the end of a trying twelve months.
At the full-time whistle the players are engulfed in a tide of stone-washed denim and flat-top haircuts, and the Boro’ fans duly dance their cares away in the dust of the Belle Vue pitch. Things were on the up for the Teesiders and a decade later they would visit Wembley for both domestic cup finals. Eleven years on from this game Belle Vue would witness many more pitch invasions, albeit ones of a darker mood, as it became Rovers’ turn to stare death in the face.