BY PAUL BREEN
When we think of paradise, North Korea doesnâ€™t often come to mind. Maybe, neither does Middlesbrough but Iâ€™ve recently discovered that itâ€™s a fine town all the same. Iâ€™ve been there twice in the past couple of months, and first time around I missed out on a trip that is well worth making, though slightly off the beaten track. This is a pilgrimage to the former Ayresome Park Stadium that survives in spirit and sculpture beneath the housing estate now built there.
Originally, Ayresome Park was constructed in open space close to the old Paradise Ground, which served a team that went by the interesting name of Middlesbrough Ironopolis FC. That club went out of business in 1894, and Middlesbroughâ€™s other team (the present day Boro) moved into the new Ayresome Park in 1903. Archibald Leitch, a renowned Scottish architect and engineer, designed one part of the stadium and another was transferred across from the clubâ€™s previous ground. Leitch also created the original versions of Anfield, Arsenalâ€™s old Highbury Stadium, Ibrox in Glasgow, Old Trafford in Manchester, and Fulhamâ€™s atmospheric Craven Cottage by Londonâ€™s riverside. Ayresome Park found itself in good company from the start.
In the nine decades of football that followed, there were mixed fortunes for Middlesbrough F.C. with occasional glimpses of paradise along the way.
One of the lowest points came with relegation to the old third division, a lock-out from the ground because of unpaid debts, and the threat of extinction â€“ fates and fears I can empathise with as a Charlton supporter.
Highlights included a handful of Second Division titles, an Anglo-Scottish Cup victory in the 1975/76 season, play-off battles and derby games ingrained forever in the communal memory, and then the distinction of being one of the founder members of the Premier League in 1992, which may have been as much of a curse as a blessing for the fate of Ayresome Park.
Bigger ambitions brought about a move to the more spacious surrounds of the Riverside Stadium in 1995. Was that then the cue to sink all traces of the past? You know the story; bulldozers and diggers come in, rip down what was there, cover it over with clay, and then cement, and stick up a small blue plaque to appease those few supporters who care. The plaque might have said Brian Clough was here, or Don Revie, Wilf Manion, and even Jackie Charlton over whom there is still a long running custody battle between the north-east and Ireland.
But if youâ€™re going there expecting nothing more than a small blue plaque youâ€™ll get a pleasant shock. I went there a week ago anticipating a housing estate covering a football stadium. Instead I found a football stadium co-existing with a housing estate, and a sense of history as pervasive as the stiff March breeze.
From the minute you get there, the ghosts and the echoes are everywhere. Starting off at the former entrance, you do get a sense of abandonment because the original gates are gone, having been taken to the Riverside as in the photograph below. But as you probe deeper inside, youâ€™re acutely conscious of being in an open-air museum of living history â€“ as fascinating in its own way as Middlesbroughâ€™s other historical repositories, the Dorman Museum by Albert Park with its statue of Brian Clough, and the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum.
Several of the original walls remain, with shadows of their function still visible. The streets are named for football themes â€“ the Turnstile, the Midfield and so on. And then, most importantly, the key parts of the pitch and its history are marked out in this amazing set of sculptures that are imperceptible at first.
You see a ball by a tree in someoneâ€™s garden, and a denim-looking coat hanging over the railings by somebodyâ€™s house, or a pair of boots outside the door. But the closer you get to them you find that theyâ€™re really a set of bronze sculptures placed at key points of the pitch to represent different areas and moments of history. The idea is to create a subtle trail of history, and is the creation of South African artist Neville Gabie who has titled his whole project â€˜The Trophy Roomâ€™. Itâ€™s cleverly put together, there for those who want to find it, and not intruding upon the flight path of those who donâ€™t.
Thereâ€™s a ball to mark the centre circle, as seen in the photograph of Middlesbrough cultural ambassador Rob Nichols, editor of Boroâ€™s Fly Me to the Moon fanzine, who provided me with the fantastic tour and story of this stadium which I feel as if Iâ€™ve seen in the flesh and yet havenâ€™t at the same time.
And then deeper into the story you get tales of the streets surrounding the former ground, and names such as John Hendrie who scored Middlesbroughâ€™s last ever goals at Ayresome Park, with a double against Luton Town.
By this stage it felt as if you could take Boroâ€™s 90 years in the Riverside and turn them into a 90 minute tour to replicate the match day, complete with pies and mash from the last traces of the food stall on the back wall of the old groundâ€™s famous Holgate End. This End once faced out on a workhouse, and had to have extra bricks put in place to stop free entrance at the 1966 World Cup finals.
And thatâ€™s where the North Koreans come into the story, where the tale begins not just of many 90 minute match days for Middlesbrough but of one summer when a team of pariahs from the other side of the world took this town to their heart, and softened the hearts of many of their critics at the same time.
Their storyâ€™s not an obvious one at first, but you find it stamped in the front garden of a small close in the form of cast-iron stud marks in the earth. These stud marks represent the boot of North Korean striker Pak Doo Ik who knocked ten-man Italy out of the 1966 World Cup finals with a strike from the edge of the Ayresome Park penalty area. For years afterwards the goal and the story was legendary, even if the scorer slipped out of public view. Then in 2002, in the aftermath of The Game of their Lives, a film produced by Daniel Gordon, the North Koreans returned to the town they came to love, and the remains of the pitch where they had their finest moment. That too is a part of Ayresome Parkâ€™s story and one Iâ€™m hoping to tell in greater detail in a future article, and poignant too as we close in on the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup in England.
Yet whatâ€™s most interesting about the North Korean return to Ayresome Park is that itâ€™s a great testament to all that Iâ€™ve said here about the stadiumâ€™s survival. Even though itâ€™s covered over in a housing development, I feel as if on my tour I have seen and felt the stadium in the flesh, just as much as I have seen and felt the Riverside in the flesh in two visits there, or any of the other stadiums Iâ€™ve been to for away games in the last few years following Charlton.
One windy morning I wandered into the ghost of a football pitch and covered so much ground I felt as if Iâ€™d been to Pyongyang and even further afield to 1966 by the time I came back out of this historic site. Indeed I felt like Iâ€™d travelled as far as Captain Cook, and got on far better with the natives I met along the way!
PAUL BREEN @CharltonMen â€“ Amazon author page = http://www.amazon.co.uk/Paul-Breen/e/B00KB4V4MI/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1
You can also find one of Ayresome Parkâ€™s golden moments at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8W1xMDM5KY – where John Hendrie does what all Charlton fans love to see, but see too rarely â€“ a man in red scoring against Millwall.