From an underwhelming start against Watford to a freezing night at Sheffield Wednesday: What it's been like covering Middlesbrough behind closed doors
Just like the year before, Middlesbrough’s season started away from home and under the lights.
In that respect, there were similarities as Boro prepared to kick-off the new EFL campaign at Watford on a Friday night in September, just as they’d done at Luton around 12 months earlier.
Yet there was one palpable difference.
As someone who has been able to attend the majority of Boro’s matches this season, the privilege isn’t lost on me after a year when most supporters have been absent from stadiums.
This is my second season covering the club as a reporter and, despite the side’s struggles during the 2019/20 season, there was a buzz which accompanied every game before the Covid-19 pandemic. The atmosphere generated from both sets of supporters created a feeling of importance.
That fixture at Luton in August 2019 still sticks in the memory. A tight stadium with a roudy home crowd close to the pitch. The travelling Teessiders full of optimism at the start of a new campaign.
There were low points for Boro last term, such as conceding a last-minute winner at Birmingham and getting thrashed at Leeds, yet contrasting emotions from different parts of the ground showed just how much it meant.
Even in Boro’s final game before the UK’s first national lockdown, when Jonathan Woodgate’s side were entrenched in a relegation battle, the feelings shared between the players and away end at full-time was tangible.
That sense of occasion, where there is something significant on the line and it can all be won or lost in the space of 90 minutes is what makes sport so appealing.
There have been moments this season which have provided a thrill. Boro were in the play-off mix for most of the campaign and produced some fine performances in the first few weeks of the season. Neil Warnock’s side were building momentum at the end of 2020.
A late winner against Nottingham Forest at the end of October made it 14 points from six games. Boro’s bench leapt to their feet when Marvin Johnson converted an 81st-minute winner at the Riverside that day.
Then, at the start of December, Boro denied Swansea the chance to go top of the table after hanging on to a 2-1 lead in a Wednesday night pulse-raiser. When the full-time whistle sounded, Warnock spun around and gave a big fist pump towards the dugout. You can only imagine the reaction that would have received from supporters.
Those were some of the highlights from a congested season, while visiting new away grounds at Wycombe and Brentford were also enjoyable experiences.
Still, there just wasn’t the same hype or feeling or significance attached to the whole matchday experience.
Previously, reporters would arrive at the ground between two to three hours before kick-off, a chance to prepare for the team news, get something to eat and chat with fellow journalists about what was to come.
This year it has become far more withdrawn, with most clubs only allowing entrance an hour and a half before the match, when you are directed straight to the outside, and often chilly, press box.
Sitting in cold and empty stadiums has often left a shivering feeling at the end of 90 minutes.
During Boro’s poor showing on a freezing and dejecting night at Sheffield Wednesday just after Christmas, it felt as if the enjoyment was being sapped out of the ground. With no indoor press facilities available, I decided to finish my work from the car.
There has been a slightly different set-up at the Riverside, where post-match press conferences have taken place face-to-face, in a socially-distanced side room, rather than over Zoom. The regular press room, which is situated next door, has instead been used as an away dressing room.
That has made for some interesting post-match moments, such as when the Birmingham team won 1-0 at the Riverside and celebrated by turning up a playlist which contained tunes from Fatman Scoop, Gwen Stefani and Lighthouse Family.
On another occasion, one Championship manager could be heard shouting at his players and calling them ‘cowards’ after a subpar performance, only to subsequently praise his team when speaking to the media moments later.
Pre-match press conferences have also been different this season, taking place via Zoom rather than in person at Boro’s Rockliffe Training Ground.
And while that has still made for some memorable moments, like when Warnock told me to get a haircut or when he recommended 70s film ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest’, it’s been harder to build a rapport with the Boro boss.
Warnock is great for journalists and always provides interesting quotes, something which has managed to keep some fans engaged during what must have felt like a distant season.
With supporters only able to watch their teams play via online streams, many have become detached from their clubs.
Over the last few weeks, it’s been refreshing to see fans back inside stadiums for Premier League matches and play-off games. That raw emotion and passion is something which can’t be matched.
It got to a stage this season where it felt normal having no supporters in the ground, and that was a depressing feeling.
Without spectators there were times when matches felt like warm-up events rather than high-stake fixtures with promotion and relegation on the line.
As is written at Old Trafford, quoting Sir Matt Busby, ‘football is nothing without fans.’ The last year has shown just how true that is.
Hopefully the start of next season doesn’t have such an underwhelming beginning. Hopefully supporters will be able to provide that anticipation and excitement we’ve come to expect.