Ironopolis on the Tees seeks to rejoin football elite

Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game

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.

While Boro have spent most of the time since in the second tier, the club remains as essential to the town as the Bloomer-era Transporter Bridge and the revived Teesside riverbank.

Getting Around

Arriving in town, local transport and tips

The nearest airport, underused Teesside International 20km (12.5 miles) south-west of town, has connections with Amsterdam and seasonal holiday destinations. Arriva bus 12 runs every 2-3hrs from the airport to Darlington station (£4.20, journey time 30mins), where a train to Middlesbrough (£6, journey time 30mins) runs every 30mins. Boro Taxis (01642 222 222) charge £20 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 12mins, 25min journey time) or Heworth (30min journey time). A single ticket from the airport to Middlesbrough from is £15, whether with one change at Heworth or two, at Newcastle Central and Darlington. Allow 2hrs. Boro Taxis (see above) quote £50 from Newcastle Airport to Middlesbrough. 

National Express runs 3-4 direct buses a day from Manchester (2hrs 20mins) and London (6hrs 30mins). Middlesbrough bus station is just off Newport Road close to Captain Cook Square Shopping Centre.

Direct hourly trains from Manchester to Middlesbrough take 2hrs 15mins. 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.

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for football fans

Pubs and bars line main Linthorpe Road and streets leading off it, particularly Southfield Road, where the Dickens Inn and The Southfield sit in the University of Teesside campus, TV sport, craft beers and DJs appealing to all. Close by, TS: One is a popular gathering place for big matches and big nights out. 

Further up Linthorpe Road, on Baker Street, Rafferty’s offers a little of everything, TV sport, comedy, live music and open mic. Alongside, Sherlock’s also offers match action, plus craft and Belgian beers, in a cosy pub setting, while The Twisted Lip exudes originality, which is probably why it wins most votes for best bar in town. Whether they’re spinning indie, showing footie or pouring a well-curated craft beer, there’s a savvy touch to everything.

One street down on Borough Road, the Devil’s Advocate prides itself on its select drinks, and not only beers. There’s football, too. Parallel on Bedford Street, O’Connells combines big-screen football with superior pub grub, particularly the Sunday carvery. Next door, The Chairman pushes the boat out where Sunday roasts are concerned – there are screens inside, rows of tables outside, with food the main focus.

Back on Linthorpe Road, The Dovecot is a lively, classier but welcoming option, whether it’s beer or cocktails. Further up on Captain Cook Square in the retail hub, the Resolution is a standard Wetherspoons, named after the famed explorer’s ship.

The other Wetherspoons, at the opposite end of Linthorpe Road, The Swatters Carr offers the standard drinks and meal deals. Further down Linthorpe Road, the Intrepid Explorer is a major match-watching spot, with darts, pool and a beer garden. Note the pub sign, Captain Cook with his charts in hand, ready to weigh anchor.

On the west side of town, a few streets from where the old Ayresome Park once stood, the Yellow Rose is a large, family-friendly spot with TV sport. Nearby on Roman Road, Dr Phil’s Real Ale House is the place to go for rare and craft beers. 

Where to stay

The best hotels for the ground and around town

Love Middlesbrough has no hotel information.  Within easy reach of the stadium on Marton Road are two lodgings in the India-based budget-accommodation group, OYO. The OYO Baltimore offers lower mid-range doubles while the OYO Longlands has singles, doubles, triples and quads, plus rooms with shared facilities, at a range of prices.

Also a short walk from the Riverside, 200 metres from the train station, the Jurys Inn is the largest hotel in town, with a spa, heated pool, gym, bar and restaurant.

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 a 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 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.