Middlesbrough fans over the years could be forgiven for believing there was a curse on their strikers.
From Michael Ricketts to Afonso Alves, Bart Ogbeche to Martin Braithwaite, many a forward has arrived on Teesside full of promise but failed to deliver.
The likes of Fabrizio Ravanelli, Mark Viduka or more recently Patrick Bamford stand out as the outliers, but even their contributions were tainted by cup final defeats, play-off heartbreak and relegation.
It has felt like the universe has been against Boro strikers. As if some cosmic imbalance has tilted against them, causing balls to bobble and lines to be fluffed.
Now, the cause might just have been found. An ancient relic of the Boro days of yore, finally returned to its rightful place.
After 24 years, John Hendrie has his boot back.
“It was April 30, 1995 and it was Boro’s last-ever game at Ayresome Park,” Hendrie recalls.
“They had played there for over 100 years and that was the last game.
“I scored the last goal in a 2-1 victory against Luton Town. We played the following week away at Tranmere and we got promotion before that game, because our promotion rivals had drawn in midweek.
“So come the final game the following week, when the final whistle went all the Boro fans invaded the pitch and we all got hoisted onto their shoulders.
“Somebody took my left boot and a different person took my right boot – Boro fans.
“And when you’re on somebody’s shoulders, you can’t help somebody pulling your boots off you, so that was that!”
In the midst of promotion celebrations, it wasn’t a big deal for Hendrie.
He had his second Boro promotion and a pair of lucky fans had some unusual mementos.
My kids said to me this time, “Dad, that’s special. Make sure you hang on to that, don’t give this one away. My wife says it’s like something out of Cinderella, the lost slipper.John Hendrie
But over time, the niggle grew.
Friends would ask Hendrie what happened to them and he wouldn’t have an answer.
“It was probably about seven or eight years ago; I was in the directors’ guest lounge and on display in a glass cabinet was ‘the boot worn by John Hendrie, the last goalscorer at Ayresome Park’.
“The guy who got the left boot donated it to Middlesbrough, so that is still on display at the Riverside.
“But that wasn’t the boot that scored the goal, it was my right boot that scored the goal.”
Like a crestfallen gallery director mourning the loss of a masterpiece, at some point he must have given up hope.
The boot, if it was still in one piece, could equally have found its final resting place on somebody’s mantlepiece or in a skip.
But, well over two decades after its last recorded sighting, the case was blown wide open by an unlikely source.
“It was only about last year that ex-player Archie Stephens was at a game,” Hendrie says.
“He brought a guest with him, a friend of his. And his friend says ‘Oh, I’ve got your boot, John – from Tranmere’. I went, ‘You’re joking! That was the last goal that was scored at Ayresome Park!’
“And he says, ‘Yeah I know, that’s why I’ve kept it’. So he’d kept this boot since 1995. And Archie says in jest that he should give it back and I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right’, but it was just tongue-in-cheek and I thought nothing of it.”
Not wanting to demand its return, Hendrie was happy enough with the knowledge that it had found a safe home.
The boot seemed in good hands, in the possession of a Boro fan who knew and appreciated its significance.
For him, it was a tangible memory of a glorious day, of the Ayresome Angels EIO-ing their way through one last sun-drenched afternoon at their spiritual home.
But a few weeks after the mystery was solved, another famous Boro face stepped into the fray.
“It was just a couple of weeks ago, the same lad who owned the boot was at the game and he was sat next to myself, Archie Stephens, and Bernie Slaven,” Hendrie says.
Hendrie told Slaven the story and, as a man who knew as well as anyone the feeling of scoring goals for Middlesbrough, Slaven didn’t doubt for a second that Hendrie craved to see the boot again.
If he had thrown it into the crowd, Hendrie hastens to add, it would have been a different story. Finders-keepers. But taken off his foot and apparently lost, the mystery had left him keen for a reunion. Finally, as Boro lurched their way to a 1-1 draw against Newport County in the FA Cup, the day came.
Some 8,672 days since he laced up his black Nikes and side-footed Derek Whyte’s pass home, Hendrie held the boot in his hand once more. Slaven had delivered.
“At the game on Saturday, Bernie just turns up with my boot,” Hendrie says. “He’d had a conversation with the lad and convinced him that it would mean more to me than it would to him.
“It’s a nice wee story because over the years I’ve given loads away, shirts and memorabilia to charities. My kids said to me this time, ‘Dad, that’s special. Make sure you hang on to that, don’t give this one away’.
“My wife says it’s like something out of Cinderella, the lost slipper. I’ll probably get a little case made for it because it is unique, it is part of Boro folklore. It is something which means a lot to me, so I’ll certainly get it put in a cabinet or something.”
Holding the boot now takes Hendrie back in time, as talk of Ayresome does for all Boro fans of a certain generation.
The Holgate End was the most prominent part of the ground and the part that lives on in spirit at the Riverside, but it isn’t the first thing Hendrie recalls.
“Ask the Boro fans now, the older ones, they loved it and they didn’t want to move,” he says. “It was funny, you came out of the tunnel and then the far stand was the ‘Chicken Run’. If you weren’t performing…” he tails off, chuckling at the memory.
“That ‘Chicken Run’ destroyed some of the home players, let alone the away players. If they were having a bad day they would be there thinking, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to go over that side now!’
“Behind the goal was the Holgate where all the Boro fans were. That’s what Ayresome was famous for, and that’s where that goal was scored.”
That goal and hundreds before it. For most players, they have been harder to come by at the Riverside. Now justice is served and this lost relic of a happier time has been returned to its rightful place. Maybe – just maybe – the curse will lift.