Saturday Interview: Bernie Slaven - Time is now for Middlesbrough to end wait for Wembley triumph

Bernie Slaven in action against Chelsea in a 1-0 defeat in the Zenith Data cup final at Wembley in 1990.
Bernie Slaven in action against Chelsea in a 1-0 defeat in the Zenith Data cup final at Wembley in 1990.
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FOR someone who once famously bared his backside in the window of a department store in Middlesbrough, Bernie Slaven is unlikely to be shy when it comes to making a statement.

And if his beloved Boro do end their six-year exile from the Premier League on Monday tea-time at Wembley, he says he and his fellow Teesside residents will be justified in displaying the equivalent of two fingers to many who have mocked the area and given it the equivalent of a beating by media over the years.

Slaven, a Holgate End icon in his goal-laden days at Ayresome Park, may have seen his Boro career end in 1993, but the affinity between himself and the public of Teesside, where he has spent over half of his life, still endures.

Paisley-born he may be – complete with an accent which is still pure Clydeside – but the working-class values and irreverent straight-talking passion of Slaven resonates with many in the Boro nation and it is no surprise that his opinionated career as a radio pundit in the north-east has proved a success in his post-playing days.

Like his musical hero Morrissey, Slaven bridles at what he sees as social injustice and just as the Mancunian icon stood up to the establishment in his own way, so the former Boro goal-getter is sticking up for his people and area.

The knockers from far away who paint Middlesbrough in a bad light and ridicule it as being the one of the worst – if not the worst – place to live in the country are in his sights.

A year after another Glaswegian in Steve Evans spoke about Rotherham United fighting back at Wembley amid a welter of negative headlines circulating about the South Yorkshire town, another traditional steel-making stronghold in the North Riding in Middlesbrough are seeking their own cherished play-off final moment for their red-and-white clad hordes, including Slaven.

Now 54 and still shooting from the hip, Slaven told The Yorkshire Post: “For us to get to Wembley and win, that would be a two-fingered salute to half of Britain and saying up: ‘Up yours’ we are putting Middlesbrough on the map again for the right reasons.

“It would be fantastic for everyone and the economy and everyone involved.

“The town has been portrayed in a bad light over the past few years with the national papers coming into Middlesbrough and knocking it and calling it the poorest and worst place to live and then there was the ‘Benefits Street’ thing last week.

“These guys who come and commandeer these things arrive for a couple of days and then head off.

“I have lived here for 30 years and there are good people on Teesside and lovely eateries and the countryside is beautiful.

“I know what it is all about and there are some great people here who wear their hearts on their sleeves and for me, the people who are fortunate to have a job on Teesside are working-class heroes but some jobs are few and far between. Getting back in the Premier League would be great for the area.”

Slaven famously displayed his rear in Binns window a fair few years ago after declaring on air he would perform the forfeit if Middlesbrough won a game at Old Trafford against Sir Alex Ferguson’s eventual treble winners in 1998. They did, 3-2.

There are no such predictions regarding Monday’s play-off final against Norwich City at a sold-out Wembley in the self-styled ‘£120m jackpot’ game, the prize being the Premier League.

Slaven has won at Wembley, but in the colours of Port Vale and not Boro, with the former Republic of Ireland striker part of the side who lost the Zenith Data Systems final to Chelsea in 1990.

The home of football is a venue where Boro have never won, with Monday representing their first visit there in 17 years.

But in terms of play-off history, Slaven has previous success, scoring vital goals in the 1988 semi-final and final against Bradford City and Chelsea, with Bruce Rioch’s ‘Boro Babes’ going onto seal a remarkable promotion to the top-flight.

Just like on that May afternoon when Boro made their return to the big time after six years after clinching an aggregate win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, so Monday’s final chapter slightly further north in the capital also promises to be an ultra-tense occasion.

Slaven said: “It is about finishing off the job now.

“I always remember the Bradford games, having played them first away and the final against Chelsea was a two-legged affair too as that used to be the system and thankfully we came through with flying colours.

“I just hope this present-day Boro team can do likewise.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of luck involved in anything in life and, in football, you still need the rub of the green via a deflection or an own goal or maybe a sending-off.

“There’s the luck as well as the ability element. Everybody needs to be in sync. The thing about Wembley is that, having played there with Middlesbrough and Port Vale – where even though they weren’t the most glamorous finals, they were full houses – the game can pass you by.

“It only needs one or two out of sync and, before you know it, you are out. Everybody needs to be involved and have total concentration.

“We may not have won at Wembley. But they say this is a new Wembley, so maybe the old one has gone and the new one suits us better!

“If I am being brutally honest, Norwich are probably a better footballing team and better on the eye. But we are better defensively and more drilled as a unit.

“But anything can happen on the day. I am not a betting man and wouldn’t put my money on who is going to win. But I hope and pray Boro are going to do it.”

The side who Slaven was first promoted to the top-flight with – he was also went up with Boro to the big time via the conventional automatic route in 1991-92 – was predominantly made up of peroxide-blond homegrown lads in the shape of messrs Mowbray, Pallister, Cooper, Ripley and Parkinson, alongside fellow north-easterners Stephen Pears and Brian Laws.

It was a time when Boro were led by a figure of gravitas in the dressing room in Rioch and over a quarter of a century on, some similarities exist in the spirit and togetherness between fans and players as they did in those heady days of the late eighties.

Slaven said: “There is a good spirit and camaraderie without a doubt.

“Aitor Karanka said earlier this season that everyone is important at the football club from the tea-lady to the chairman and that is a quote I would have used many years ago.

“That shows what kind of attitude is in the dressing room and there does not seem to be any big-time Charlies and there certainly wasn’t in my day when we would not have tolerated them.

“I speak in the Legends Lounge on match days and people ask ‘what are the comparisons?’ The comparison is that they are a good football team who are doing well and are close to the fans.

“But the team I was in was unique in that they were all local lads mainly and signed under contract. Now there’s a few more loan players. But there are definite similarities.”