Graeme AtkinsonComment


Graeme AtkinsonComment

“There’s a walk from Redcar…I’d cross a bridge at night and walk above the steel works. So that’s probably where the opening of Blade Runner comes from. It always seemed gloomy and raining and I’d just think God, this is beautiful.”

I have probably always loved Ridley Scott. I suppose it helps that, like me, he is a native of the North East. In fact, he was born in South Shields, spitting distance from where I live now on the coast.

On a rather glum, grey Wednesday morning in keeping with Scott’s above quote, I set off with the family making a short journey a few miles north to take in the recently launched Ridley Scott exhibition, ‘Past, Present & Future Visionary’.

Whilst there it struck me, with a single-minded, creatively charged, steely determination, Scott managed to morph the landscape of Teesside from a heavily industrialised area into a perfectly stylised and spectacular Hollywood film. The North East bites hard at times yet no matter how far you travel, the region will always leave its impression. Thanks to Scott the local factories with their chimneys blowing thick grey plumes of smoke, the metal cranes, the giant Transporter Bridge and the essence of the whole surrounding area has, in many ways, left its indelible mark forever on celluloid. In short, the genesis of his existential sci-fi magnum opus was born, of all places, near the small town of Middlesbrough.

Why am I wittering about a film director? Well, perhaps rather bizarrely I was also struck by how much the parallels between the Sandancer’s imagery of Blade Runner reminded me of Middlesbrough FC Chairman, Steve Gibson, and his own ambitious vision – the dream to reimagine his boyhood team.

Like Scott, Gibson, a local businessman, also transformed the Teesside landscape. However, his affect was far more tangible. After all, he took Middlesbrough FC from the brink of financial collapse and emblazoned it in neon, projecting once more onto the metaphorical big screen. The ‘Hollywood’ that is the Premier League. 

Gibson found himself in the thick of things once he sank comfortably in the director’s chair.  The story could have easily weaved its way into a summer blockbuster. The rise, fall and rise again nature of his ‘plot’ is remarkable.

Time travel back to the mid 1980’s and Middlesbrough FC had become the very definition of a dystopian environment. Vangelis’ hauntingly synthesized Blade Runner soundtrack could have aptly chimed out over the landscape. Padlocked and discarded, former home Ayresome Park sat coldly as a rusty dilapidated eyesore. The club had spiralled down to the Third Division and money had to be borrowed from the PFA just to pay wages. For Gibson and his team, these were bleak times indeed.

However, a consortium led by the young entrepreneur rescued the club, dragging it up from the doldrums and placing it back on terra firma once again. In heroic style the haulage owner extinguished metaphorical fires off the field, juggled one financial crisis after another and slowly engendered a real genuine excitement in the area. Whispers of ‘hope’ from the locals began to emerge.

However, according to Gibson, any seeds of optimism around that time are no thanks to the FA. After seeking their help and support in his new footballing venture Gibson infamously said, “[They were looking to] crucify a football club, and this small club in the north-east was the one they picked on.”

Putting these problems to one side, the sort of exhilaration that can only be found from watching your football team go on a sharp, upward trajectory after such steep decline was crystallised in the building of the Riverside Stadium – a genuine phoenix from the flames.

The players who joined the existing troupe in the summer of 1994 could be likened to talented actors, helping to deliver Gibson’s carefully crafted narrative. The ‘White Feather’ Fabrizio Ravanelli, Juninho and his fellow Brazilians Emmerson and Branco added a sparkle of stardust onto the ‘soundstage’ that had hitherto not existed on Teesside. Gibson’s fantasy of achieving success for his boyhood team had finally been rewarded, with reality. Perhaps there can be no greater prize.

The images of Ravanelli scoring a hat-trick on the first day of Middlesbrough’s return to the top flight against Liverpool are iconic. They must surely remain burned forever onto the retina of Gibson and every club supporter who witnessed those goals - a magical time conjuring precious memories to be retained. However, as with every great adventure, a fall is never too far away and Bryan Robson – then manager – eventually oversaw their relegation. This, allied to a cup final defeat caused the majority of the stellar cast to disband.

Thanks to Gibson bankrolling transfers in the mid 1990’s there had been plenty of big names and star attractions settling into life at Middlesbrough. Although, it was not until Gibson’s appointment of Steve McClaren that his team really hit the top of the box office with the 2003/04 season being the most successful in the club’s history. The former England manager spoke of his relationship with the Middlesbrough Chairman during his time on Teesside;

“Steve Gibson could have sacked me many times during my five years. In the modern game I probably wouldn’t have lasted six months. We had our fights, we had our ups and downs, but we kind of stuck together.”

“And five years is a long time in football - it’s an eternity now - but Steve is determined and he carries on and carries on. Boro wouldn’t be Boro without him and I wouldn’t have had that opportunity without him. And we still stay in touch.”

Admittedly, Gibson is every so often hailed as one of the best Chairman within the game. Yet I am not sure he is truly appreciated outside of the region. Occasionally pundits and commentators spit out compliments in a rather cavalier fashion, perhaps more because they have heard others make the similar remarks rather than from a genuine sense of honest praise. Put simply, his contribution to Middlesbrough FC cannot be overstated. Indeed it should be forever lauded.

More recently, having overseen a further resurgence of the club after seven years spent in the Championship, Gibson is once again centre stage. Yet, his role never overshadows, never steals attention from those on the pitch who command it, and with his coaches he always supports those who need it.

Speak to the current incumbent to sit in the managerial hot seat though, and perhaps you may hear a different side to Gibson. Frustrations borne from his perceived lack of investment during the recent transfer activity may yet prove a difficult challenge for the veteran Chairman to overcome. Somewhere within those arguments may lay a version of the truth. It is a far cry from the unbridled optimism that surrounded Spaniard Aitor Karanka’s arrival in 2013.

"It's about self-interest,” said Gibson at the time, “Greg Dyke's got his self-interest which is the FA and I've got my self-interest which is Middlesbrough Football Club. I'm an Englishman and I always want Englishmen to do well but this is the right decision for me. And maybe our English footballers can learn from the Spanish influence. The greatest football-producing nation of this generation has been Spain.” 

Gibson added,

"This is a real change for our club but football is global now – we're all one. In the past I've been accused of being a little Englander but the game has become global and we were searching for a first-class coach. We set down a clear template of what we were looking for and Aitor was the outstanding candidate.”

The fact that Gibson spoke of Middlesbrough operating in a global market shows just how far he has taken the club and how much football has changed - from the failure of dystopian ruins to League Cup success and recent resurgence to the top flight. Such is the level of interest there have even been rumours of Gibson declining the offer of £50million from a Chinese consortium to buy him out.

On its release Blade Runner flopped at the Box Office but was eventually given the recognition it deserved. Having gone through various different cuts and edits it became a film noir/science fiction classic. Like Ridley Scott, I hope Steve Gibson is also remembered in a fashion that is truly worthy of his achievements too – a past, present and future visionary indeed.

By Graeme Atkinson. Graeme is an IBWM Editor. 

Header image credit goes fully to  Dom Fellows.