Clough, Common, Mannion and… Pak Doo-ik. Middlesbrough has seen a diverse array of football talent over the decades. A statue to Mannion stands at the Riverside Stadium, the modern-day arena of the town’s flagship club, Middlesbrough FC, while one to Clough was unveiled near the club’s former home of Ayresome Park.
North Korean World Cup hero Pak Doo-ik was honoured 35 years after his exploits in 1966 thanks to filmmaker Daniel Gordon, who brought the seven surviving members of Pak’s squad from Pyongyang back to Middlesbrough for the 2002 documentary ‘The Game of Their Lives’. Mention Middlesbrough to any Italian fan of a certain age and he hangs his head in shame. Forever evoked by the headline writers of Gazzetta dello Sport to signify any kind of national football tragedy, Middlesbrough was where the Azzurri succumbed to their most devastating defeat, 1-0 to the unknown North Koreans.
The fact that the World Cup came to Middlesbrough at all points to football’s importance here. Boro’s trophy cabinet is sparse, holding a solitary League Cup, but the local commitment to the game and its modern-day revival here remain impressive.
Boro fans may be nicknamed the Smoggies but their town surprises visitors with its open green spaces and wide, handsome, grid-patterned streets planned as Middlesbrough grew from a village of 25 residents in 1801 to a booming industrial hub of 90,000 a century later. Twenty-five years after the world’s first railway pulled into nearby Stockton in 1825, iron ore was discovered in the surrounding Cleveland Hills.
‘Ironopolis’ was not only the nickname of this prominent producer of iron and steel but the football club formed by disgruntled players of Middlesbrough FC in 1889. Resolutely non-professional, with two early Amateur Cups to prove it, Middlesbrough FC had been founded by 1876 by local cricket players looking for winter entertainment.
The other main team was South Bank. Founded as early as 1868, the Bankers were prominent members of the Northern League until World War II. Surviving until 1999, South Bank had provided the opposition for Ironopolis for their last game in 1894. In their kit of maroon and myrtle, changed to red-and-white stripes for their solitary and poorly attended season in the Football League in 1893-94, Ironopolis were always a bizarre proposition.
But Ironopolis forged the way for rivals Boro to turn professional and enter the Football League. Moving to Ayresome Park beside the former home of Ironopolis, the Paradise Ground, moneyed but lowly Middlesbrough created a sensation by signing the world’s first £1,000 footballer, Alf Common, from Sunderland in 1905.
A year later, Boro paid almost as much for Steve Bloomer, the greatest player of the era. Still no league crown, still no cup. Prolific, locally born forwards – Wilf Mannion, George Camsell, Brian Clough – came and went yet Boro remained trophyless.
The harsh 1980s saw the club’s near disappearance and Thatcher’s Teeside Walk in the Wilderness amid the declining coal, chemical and engineering industries. But they also gave rise to a local figure who changed the game here forever: Steve Gibson. A lifelong Boro fan, Socialist and self-made millionaire Gibson was behind the building of a new stadium, the Riverside, the hiring of manager Bryan Robson and signing of big names such as Juninho.
Boro made three finals in two years before giving Steve McClaren his first shot as manager. A first trophy, the League Cup, arrived in 2004, before a European final in 2006.
Ten years later, Boro managed to return to the Premier League, the club as essential to the town as the Bloomer-era Transporter Bridge and the revived Teesside riverbank.
The nearest airport, underused Durham Tees Valley 20km (12.5 miles) south-west of town, has regular connections with Amsterdam and the long-haul flights out of it. There is no direct bus connection from the airport to Middlesbrough – you have to go via Darlington. Boro Taxis (01642 222 222) charges £14 to town.
Newcastle Airport is 84km (52 miles) away. There is no direct transport link with Middlesbrough – you’ll have to take the Tyne & Wear Metro metro direct to Central Station (every 12min, 25min journey time) or Heworth (30min journey time). A single ticket from the airport to Middlesbrough from thetrainline.com is £15, whether with one change at Heworth or two, at Newcastle Central and Darlington. Allow 2hrs.
National Express runs 3-4 direct buses a day from Manchester (2hr 20min) and London (6hr 30min). Middlesbrough bus station is just off Newport Road close to Captain Cook Square Shopping Centre.
Direct hourly trains from Manchester to Middlesbrough take 2hrs 15min. From London King’s Cross, it’s 3hrs with a change in Darlington. Middlesbrough train station is slightly closer to the Riverside Stadium, on Zetland Road.
Several local bus companies operate around Middlesbrough – see Connect Tees Valley for times and prices.
Within easy reach of the stadium on Marton Road are two lodgings. Smart, 31-room The Baltimore has a restaurant and full evening bar service while the smaller, family-run Longlands is kitted out in Boro colours, photos of past players adorning its walls and car park.
Also a short walk from the Riverside, 200 metres from the train station, the former Thistle was taken over by Jurys Inn in 2015. The largest hotel in town, it has as spa, gym, bar and restaurant.
Many other major chains have moved into Middlesbrough. Opposite the main hospital, close to James Cook rail station with quick links and bus lines to town, the Premier Inn Middlesbrough Central South is an affordable and convenient option – its sister operation on the north bank of the Tees by the Barrage waterpark is ten-minute bus ride to town from the stop on the A19 flyover.
Near the bus station west of the town centre, you’ll find a functional Travelodge.
Any easy hop into town on bus Nos.17 A-C from the Bluebell Corner south of town, the Blue Bell Hotel is well appointed, with a decent bar and restaurant and accent on TV sport.
Finally, out by the airport, the 59-room St George displays a history of the building from RAF base to international departure point.
In town, you’ll find a hub of bars by Teeside University on Southfield Road, including The Star, with DJs at weekends, a decent range of ales and TV sport. The nearby Dickens Inn, sleek and spacious, offers cocktails, TV football and DJs.
Nearer the station, the Resolution, known locally as ‘Lloyds’, is the main Wetherspoons in town.
Also on the west side of town, yards from where the old Ayresome Park stood, the Yellow Rose is a large, family-friendly spot with TV sport. Nearby, Dr Phil’s Real Ale House is the place to go for rare and craft beers.
Middlesbrough is surrounded by rural villages and traditional pubs: the cosy Pot & Glass in Egglescliffe is typical of the genre. Just across over the water in Yarm, on a bend in the Tees, the High Street is lined with pubs. The Black Bull has been in business since 1834 and now offers TV football, quality pub grub and a beer garden. Alongside, the George & Dragon is another typical local with TV football a main feature.
Also south-west of town in Maltby, the Manor House is a modern, upmarket bar set in pretty countryside, near the stop for the Nos.18 and 19 bus to the station in Middlesbrough.