To celebrate Local History Month and the ten years since his best-selling book, My Only Boro, hit the shelves, Will Nett takes a look back at Middlesbrough’s recent history.

One of the best things about getting older is that you can look back on things you said years earlier with a chin-stroking satisfaction, and say, “Yep, I told you that would happen.”

I don’t seek to make any predictions here, other than foreseeing Middlesbrough FC’s obligatory last day of the season defeat to Wycombe (article written before that did actually happen), but, conversely, you can also look like a right doyle when your sage-like opinions are shown to have aged like a mayfly. Especially if you’ve written them all down in a document that has endured the test of time and is often referred to many years later. Like, say, a book about your hometown, for example. Other than predicting the imminent collapse of Socialism – sorry, folks, but you were warned on page 132 of My Only Boro – my first book was concerned more with that fail-safe trait of ageing: nostalgia.

‘It ain’t what it used to be’ as someone once said of that very subject, but what is it? Rarely has a ten year period in Middlesbrough’s reasonably short history ushered in so much change, good and bad. The town has endured three Mayors of hugely varying opinion and popularity, from crime-busting supercops, to ex-bankers, to populist ‘independents’ and tumultuous political fortunes that will reverberate through the ages. Much has been promised, but perhaps not delivered, often in the form of crumbling vanity projects, for example, a ski centre, the mooted development of which would have cost considerably less if those involved had instead set fire to a £20 note for every minute of the consultation process.

“Rarely has a ten year period in Middlesbrough’s reasonably short history ushered in so much change, good and bad.”

In a positive move with the times, we’ve gone noticeably greener. As part of a community initiative, Middlesbrough is now a ‘Tree City of the World’ and has committed to planting 10,000 trees across the town and wider area in a fine example of a legacy project that will benefit the town for years to come. The trees will provide something for everyone; a natural management of carbon emissions favoured by those of the Green persuasion, and a go-to gripe for pothole pointer-outers who have already drawn up their maps of which roots are damaging which surfaces. A more cynical author than this one may well point out that this particular enterprise will do little to offset the encroachment of the private housing sector onto greenbelt areas. You can please some of the people all of the time; you can please all of the people some of the time; but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. This is apparent in plans to transform Linthorpe Road into something akin to a pedestrian-only zone. It comes at the behest of local councillors, who have conducted an ongoing public consultation, and to the chagrin of businesses and leaseholders. The latter are already suffering from the two-pronged attack of a global pandemic, and an apparent shift in focus towards the Boho Zone that has sprung from the ashes of the Middlehaven development to the north of the high street shopping areas. Much of the centre’s original retail area is now occupied by hotel space, to the extent that I have scientifically demonstrated that if you stand anywhere in the town centre and throw a brick, you will hit a hotel. Don’t try this at home. Or in the town centre.

Further afield, the borough’s borders have crept in all directions, but most notably west, where they surge into the previously unchartered hinterland of Spam Valley, or Ingleby Barwick, if you’re under 40.  

Down by the Riverside, Middlesbrough FC’s fortunes have unfurled in typically Boro-esque fashion.

The club has waded through no less than nine managers, including coaches acting in a caretaker role, since I first put pen to paper in the week that Tony Mowbray returned to Teesside. All of the football management clichés were explored and exhausted; beginning with the returning prodigal son in the form of Mowbray, followed variously by the goal-shy continental Basque stylings of Aitor Karanka; Garry ‘I can start work, now, me’ Monk; league placings denying local-lad-done-good Jonathon Woodgate; right up to, currently, dyed-in-the-wool Yorkshire journeyman Neil Warnock. There’s been little to show for it, save for a Premiership return under Karanka, concocted in classic Boro style when the club failed to win any of their last four games of that season, and were promoted by dint of scoring two more goals over the course of the season than their nearest rivals, five years ago. An entire two goals to spare, then.

Despite all this, it’s worth noting for regional balance that in this period, the club has won the same amount of silverware as Newcastle have since 1955, that is, precisely nothing.

Culturally, the town has thrived, more likely as a result of the creative urge to produce in times of difficulty, than anything else, as permanent venue numbers have reduced and been ‘replaced’ with the current ‘pop up’ trend for everything from food stalls to art exhibitions, and MIMA continues to perplex and provoke, as all art should. The attraction of some of music’s biggest names further boosted the area’s profile. A pre-Just Eat Snoop Dogg’s tax bill was sufficiently high enough for him to appear at Central Gardens extolling the virtues of ‘booty’ and ‘blunts’ thus highlighting Boro’s suitability for large scale big-name gigs, and paving the way for further marquee names. The Doggfather was followed by Take That at the Riverside, and, more recently, the remarkable success that was the Radio 1 Big Weekend at Stewart(s) Park – ‘s’ in brackets in case you want to use it – that apparently resulted in Miley Cyrus twerking her way across the Buffs’ club dancefloor at Nana Courtney’s 40th birthday do.  

I’ve written three other books since My Only Boro was published, of varying subject matter, and all touch on elements of life on Teesside, but none have endured in quite the same way. Perhaps, as we witness the slow erosion of many of our social liberties, and our ability to travel is greatly reduced, an account of a strong sense of place will continue to serve us well.

We Shall Be.