What does winning mean?
As a Middlesbrough fan – half-standing with fist in mouth as the team sit back on the edge of the box, trying to protect a slender 1-0 lead for the last five minutes, repeatedly hoofing the ball back to the opposition’s onrushing midfield – a win seems all-encompassing. It can affect your day, your week, even your whole mindset towards the town. The atmosphere lifts when the team does well, the place seems lighter and friendlier.
And if that’s just a win, what about a WIN?
Middlesbrough have, at the time of writing, won one major trophy in 142 years. And even that was the Carling Cup, a trophy that Man Utd would toss on the pile with a shrug. What does that equate to? To us it was everything, to a bigger team it’s a consolation in a disappointing season or the cherry on the top of a good one. A competition to blood the latest youngsters before their inevitable loan spells in the lower leagues.
When I was teaching in Saudi Arabia, most of my students had a favourite team. For many it was Madrid (overwhelmingly). But there was usually an English team too, to pad out the portfolio. Man City were popular, as were Chelsea. The combination of Riyad Mahrez and an improbable fairytale season meant that Leicester were also represented. Liverpool and Manchester United had, as they always do, their followers.
Moataz supported Stoke City.
“Everyone supports the big teams, it’s easy,” he said, “They don’t win for a few years and it’s like they’ve suffered”. This might be true. A trophyless season clearly means more to a Liverpool fan than a Boro or Stoke fan, but by the same token those wins, like Manchester City’s at the moment, become routine and expected. Seasons in the doldrums are swiftly forgotten. Moataz’s answer resonated with me and he instantly became my favourite student and, if I’m honest, the only one whose opinion on football I respected.
So why did he choose Stoke.
“I dunno, it feels like cheating to pick the big teams.”
I moved to Japan in 2017 and was craving football. FC Tokyo seemed like the obvious choice: top division, big stadium, international players. But as Moataz said, it seems like cheating. To co-opt success, especially after years of supporting a struggling team, seems like an unforgiveable shortcut. It doesn’t feel earned. So I ended up dipping my toe into the J2 League with Tokyo Verdy, mainly because the last trophy they won was a cup in 2004, the same year Middlesbrough won their only honour.
Tokyo Verdy are a formerly successful team, fallen on hard times. They have a team of hardworking but limited local players and two aging, out of shape Brazilians whose job it is to do nothing for 89 minutes before rifling in a 25 yard consolation goal. I saw them win once.
I moved to Budapest in January. I’d done some research this time, mainly on my phone in the pub in Boro with a few friends. Dean is usually tasked with picking me a surrogate team to follow, but often selects one several hundred miles from where I live. In the end I decided that I needed a better criteria for picking an adopted club. I came up with the following rules:
1. They can’t be the best team in their city or region (Middlesbrough are traditionally – don’t message me about this – seen as the inferior stepchild of the three North East teams. Newcastle and Sunderland being the more consistent powerhouses. This has changed a lot recently with our mid-90s rise and Sunderland’s current woes).
2. Some link with industry is preferable (Middlesbrough being a post-industrial town with strong links to its past)
3. No major honours since 2004.
After establishing these entirely arbitrary rules, one team roared out from the field. A team firmly in the shadows of their more illustrious rivals, formed from the Hungarian Union of Iron Workers, and without a major honour since 1986 (an auspicious date for a Middlesbrough fan – the year of our bankruptcy and rebirth).
The team was SC Vasas, and they were relegated in the first season I started watching them.
So this season I’ll be back, in the Nemzeti Bajnokság II, in a temporary stadium north of the city, watching a team shorn of its best players try to ascend back to the heights of the Hungarian top flight.