I covered Boro for over 25 years: ups and down, rain and shine, brief glimpses of ecstasy and dark moments of crushing disappointment. And it was fantastic.
For places like Teesside, football is important beyond words. The local club is a focus for pride, a beacon of hope, it is central to our sense of identity. It is how people know us. It puts us on the map. Along with the accent, a steel and chemical industrial heritage and a bloody big bridge it is who we are: T-T-Teessiders.
Middlesbrough Football Club is the social glue of a proud and passionate people and hard-working communities facing big challenges with dogged resilience.
It is integral to our sense of collective cultural identity, our public face to the world.
So to be on the front line of that, to be close up to the beating heart of the Infant Hercules, and to be writing the first draft of our history has been an amazing privilege.
My time covering Boro has coincided with an unprecedented era of sustained success, progress and transformation that no-one, not even the most wild-eyed optimistic on the old Ayresome Park terraces could ever have predicted.
My first manager was Lennie Lawrence. He got promoted at the first time of asking in dramatic fashion on the last day, coming from behind with 10 men in a game that was almost called off because of an arson attack and a bomb threat. The tension of that pulsating day at Wolves in May 1992 pretty much set the tone for my tenure.
Since then we have seen Bryan Robson and the Riverside Revolution; Wembley becoming routine; beating off big clubs to sign household names; a long top flight residency; mould-breaking tear-stained glory at Cardiff; a cavalier charge across Europe; Roma, Steaua and Eindhoven and then an equally emotionally slide, pulled back by football gravity to the present phase of cost-cutting, tense water-treading and recalibration.
And I’ve been there, close up, all the way and been totally absorbed by every emotionally draining second of it.
I was in the tunnel at Wembley after the heart-break of both cup finals in 1997 and again the following year but I was in the post-match celebrations after the Carling Cup win and at the promotion party at Rockliffe after the Brighton game too. Jammy get!
It hasn’t been all glamour. I slept on a bench outside the train station at Eindhoven without even a warm glow of victory to warm me through to the first train out.
I’ve had to abandon the car in a blizzard and battle the last few miles on foot. I’ve had to drive home from Blackburn in sub-zero condition after the car windows had been stoved in. Brrrr.
And it hasn’t always been easy. I’ve been banned, put on the naughty step and treated as persona non grata at various points over the years. I’ve had long spells of Cold War with the top brass – but also built bridges and relationship and got on well with the Hurworth hierarchy, bosses and players too.
And every second was brilliant. And I know thousands would have paid for the opportunity to travel home and away, talk to heroic players and giant managers and write about it. For a supporter it is the ultimate job.
And for me, the essence of football is supporters, not players. For most diehard fans the important thing is the collective experience, not the result. It is about making shared memories and being a focus for emotions otherwise unhealthy repressed.
A club is a complex eco-system made up of lots of moving parts – and I’ve written about them all – but the most important ones are the loyalists who fuel it with an unconditional emotional investment.
From the off I always wrote on the assumption that football is about fans, the people who have Boro in their blood, who go to the match as part of their birth-right. About you.
And I wrote on the assumption that fans are smart. Informed. Sharp. They are master mathematicians processing points permutations that would make NASA scientists crumble, they are erudite historians and supreme spin-doctors.
Fans are amazing. They are diverse. They are culturally literate with influences and interests outside the game and are open to new ideas and are willing to be challenged by a different point of view. That is why I revelled in writing about them as well as for them.
I always tried to engage fans but not indulge them, to inject balance, perspective, context and nuance and sometimes that can ruffle feathers, explode the consensus and provoke a backlash. I’m used to that. You need a thick skin to offer an opinion in public.
I was never passive in the press box writing about the nuts and bolts of the game. Whenever possible I was on the front line, enmeshed in the emotional barbed wire of the psychodrama, trying to capture the euphoria or angst.
Because that is the important bit.
I hope I reflected that over the years and that over the years I not just struck chords with readers but played full-blown cultural guitar solos.
I hope I can continue to do that, and encourage others to do the same.