AYRESOME Park served as home for Middlesbrough for 92 years before finally closing its doors in 1995 when the club moved to the Riverside Stadium.
THE ARCHERY GROUND
Albert Park, home of the Archery Ground
But Ayresome wasn’t by any means the club’s first home. Founded in in 1876 by members of Middlesbrough Cricket Club and others over a tripe supper at the corporation hotel. A first official took place later that year at the Albert Park hotel and in March 1877 the team played at the Archery Ground in Albert Park. That first-ever match was against Tees Wanderers, a local rugby club. It finished in a 1-1 draw with one Jackson Ewbank in the record books as the scorer of the new team’s first goal.
Middlesbrough spent three years at the Archery Ground and attendances moved into three figures before the local parks department, wary of the damage being caused to the ground, told them to find an alternative venue. They moved to the Grove Hill ground at nearby Breckon Hill Road which they rented from a Mr Kemp and where they first charged for admission – 3d for adults, 1d of children, free for women. A dispute with the landlord over a proposed rent rise forced another move after just a year.
The next move was to the home of Middlesbrough Cricket Club and then to the adjacent Linthorpe Road which had been used by the Cleveland FA to play representative matches. Middlesbrough would spend the next 14 years there and during their stay they extended the stand already located.
THE NORTHERN LEAGUE AND CUP SUCCESSES
Although the club were already proving winners at local level with five Cleveland Cup wins in a row causing them to withdraw from the competition for a season to give others a chance (they re-entered and won it again the following year) it was a run to the last eight of the F.A. Cup in 1887-88 that brought them to national prominence.
Having seen off Whitham and South Bank in the first two rounds they then ousted Sunderland in unusual circumstances. The teams drew 2-2 at Linthorpe Road before a crowd of 7,000 when despite fading light the referee decided to play extra time. However, the crowd had invaded the pitch and when it became clear that they could not be removed the ref left and a replay was ordered.
The teams met again a week later at Sunderland’s Newcastle Road ground and this time 9,000 were in attendance. Boro’ turned around at half time with a 2-0 lead but the home team, with the wind at their back in the second period came storming back and recorded a 4-2 victory.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Although professionalism was now allowed in football, pros were subject to residency rules and had to have lived within six miles of the ground for two years. At an enquiry, Middlesbrough were able to prove that three of the Sunderland players failed to meet the requirements having been born and until recently lived in Dumfries, and Boro’ were awarded the match, and with it qualification for the next round.
Given a bye in the 4th Round Middlesbrough then hammered London team Old Foresters 4-0 at home in the 5th in front of 8,000 fans, setting up another home match in the quarter final, this time against Crewe Alexandra. However the run came to an end when the Railwaymen picked up a 2-0 win.
An internal dispute over the desire of some players to turn professional saw a breakaway club, Middlesbrough Ironopolis, formed. Eventually both the old and new teams turned pro and Middlesbrough played their first match as a ‘paid’ team in an 1889 Northern League fixture against Sunderland.
Having won the Northern League in three successive seasons Middlesbrough Ironopolis, playing at the Paradise Ground, were elected to the Football League for the 1893-94 season but despite finishing in a creditable 11th the extra financial responsibilities proved too much and they folded at the end of the campaign.
The original Boro’ meanwhile reverted to amateur status and continued to compete in the Northern League. After twice finishing runners-up during the successful run of Ironopolis they then won the title on three occasions in the mid 1890s whilst also twice capturing the Amateur Cup. In 1895 they beat Old Carthusians 2-1 at Headingley and then three years later they travelled down to Crystal Palace and saw off Uxbridge 2-0
It is said that one of their players at this time took his amateur status so seriously that not only did he refuse any offer of expenses, he also insisted of paying his admission fee to matches, even when he was playing!
INTO THE LEAGUE AND HEADING FOR PARADISE
But it was back to the professional ranks in 1899 after Middlesbrough were elected to the Football League despite finishing only 3rd in the Northern League in the previous campaign.
After they had lost their opening match 3-0 at Lincoln City, Linthorpe Road hosted Boro’s first home league match, a 3-1 2nd Division defeat to Small Heath which was seen by a crowd of over 10,000. Decent home form (including a 8-1 win over Burton Swift where star forward Joe Murphy nabbed a hat-trick) made up for a dismal, winless record on the road and they finished the season in 14th place, comfortably clear of the bottom two, Luton Town and Loughborough who both failed to be re-elected.
The new home at Ayresome Park
In 1901-02 Linthorpe Road was still home as Boro’ were promoted to the 1st Division for the first time, finishing runners-up in the second tier behind West Bromwich Albion.
The lease on the ground was due for renewal in 1903 and the ambitious club had already purchased land at Paradise Field, close to the former home of Ironopolis and were ready to build a new stadium.
In fact preparations had begun on the new site two years before with extensive drainage work carried out and a number of gypsies moved off the land (allegedly leaving behind a curse). Linthorpe Road closed its doors on 25 April 1903 when another crowd of 10,000 watched a 1-1 draw with Stoke which saw them finish a creditable 13th in the top tier.
To design the new stadium the club turned to famed football ground architect Archibald Leitch and they forked out a total of £11,957 for construction of their new home
The original plan had been to move to the new stadium for the start of the 1904-05 season but when the club failed to secure a new one-year lease for Linthorpe Road the summer was spent hastily preparing it for 1903-04.
KICKING OFF – WITH A LOSS
An early aerial view
After a friendly against Celtic on August 7th brought 7,000 fans to the new stadium, last-minute preparations meant that Ayresome Park was, apart from a small section of the imposing new North stand which remained incomplete, ready for its opening league fixture eleven days later with ‘Boro facing local rivals Sunderland.
Opposite the new stand was the 50ft long South stand which had been moved from Linthorpe Road when the club left their old home. Those two stands stood together for 32 years before a new South stand was built and opened in 1937.
Joe Cassidy – scorer of the first Ayresome goal
So, on 18 August 1903 crowd of 30,000 packed the new ground for that opening league match with receipts reported as £906. Everything went according to plan – apart from the result; home player Joe Cassidy got the first goal and ‘Boro led twice but eventually fell to a 3-2 defeat to their neighbours.
They quickly righted the ship however and a resounding 6-0 thumping of Manchester City in late October moved Boro’ into the top half of the table. Despite falling away slightly from there the season finished with them in 10th place – and there was another decent cup run.
Wins at Millwall Athletic and Preston North End without conceding a goal set-up a quarter-final at Manchester City and after drawing 0-0 at Hyde Road they must have fancied their chances, especially after the league encounter earlier in the season. However, Boro’ came up short, falling 3-1 to a City team that would go on to win the trophy.
The 1905-06 team
In 1905, the new stadium was deemed worthy of hosting its first international match between England and Ireland. A crowd of 25,500 saw the teams play out a 1-1 draw with local goalkeeper Reginald ‘Tiny Tim’ Williamson earning the first of his seven international caps to go along with a record 602 appearances for the club.
Wilkinson didn’t exactly cover himself in glory on this occasion. After a goalless first half the visitors won a corner early in the second period and when the ball came over the ‘keeper failed to gather it then knocked it over his own line as he tried to retrieve the situation, putting the Irish in front. Steve Bloomer, later to join Middlesbrough, equalised but the score remained 1-1, the first time England had failed to beat their rivals from across the Irish Sea.,
BIG MONEY BUY
Alf Common. The first £1,000 player
Two years after the move to Ayresome the team were battling to avoid relegation (eventually no team dropped out of the first division as it was expanded from 18 teams to 20). They went out and made history, signing Alf Common from Sunderland for £1,000, the game’s first four-figure transfer. The move paid off immediately with Common scoring the winner from the penalty spot on his debut against Sheffield United, another of his former clubs, and he fired in the goals that saw ‘Boro rise to 15th. The following season relegation was again a real threat but Common’s goals – he got 19 in 36 matches – saw them avoid the drop on goal difference.
The team further added to their strike force in 1906 with the £750 capture of Steve Bloomer from Derby County. Although by now approaching the veteran stage, Bloomer was still a formidable force and he scored 59 times in 125 games before returning to Derby in 1910.
By the 1913-14 season both Common and Bloomer were long gone but the club managed what is still their highest-ever placing finishing 3rd behind Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa. By this time chief goalscoring responsibilities had passed to George Elliott and he responded with 31 goals to finish as the 1st Division’s leading scorer.
Sunderland-born Elliott joined the club in 1909, giving up his job in Middlesbrough docks to join and would stay with the club until 1925, also guesting for Celtic during WW1.
Middlesbrough then placed him on the transfer list so Elliott, who also win three caps for England, promptly retired and went back to working As a cargo superintendent having made 344 appearances for Boro scoring 205 goals.
Middlesbrough managed to maintain their place in the top division and posted their best finish to date in the 1913-14 season when they finished 3rd, although a distant eight points adrift of champions Blackburn Rovers.
The team were relegated in 1923-24 but the arrival of another goalscoring phenomenon propelled them back into the top flight.
County Durham-born George Camsell arrived from Durham City for £500 in 1925 and he appeared only sparsely in his debut season with the club.
The following years in the second flight was a different story as he banged in 59 goals in 37 games and the team won the second division. Camsell continued to score, finding the net 37 times in the top division but it wasn’t enough as the team finished the season anchored to the bottom of the top division.
The Prince of Wales visits Ayresome Park
Middlesbrough won the 2nd Division again in 1928-29 and Camsell top-scored again with 33 and this time they would stay pit for 25 years, whilst the centre-forward carried on banging in the goals right up until his retirement at the outbreak of the Second World War.
The George Camsell statue is unveiled at the Riverside Stadium
Camsell finished his career with 325 goals in 418 games for the club and also scored 18 times in 9 games for his country, the best-ever goal-to-games ratio for England. A statue to the centre forward was unveiled at the Riverside Stadium in 2022.
Few changes were made to the stadium until the new South stand went up in 1937. On 27 December 1949, with the game enjoying a post-war boom, the club set a new record for attendance when 53,802 watched them beat local rivals Newcastle 1-0.
After the war The Ayresome Park team maintained their place in the top division until they were relegate in 1953-54. They then uncovered another scoring machine But even his ince]reidble strike rate failed to get them back up.
Local boy Brian Clough
Locally-born Brian Clough initially joined the club as a 16-year-old in 1951. He was allowed to leave for two years and played for Billingham Symphonia whilst also competing his national service in the R.A.F but returned to Ayresome Park in 1955.
Clough would stay at the club until a 1961 move to Sunderland and he scored 204 goals in 222 games during a time at the club that was punctuated by regular transfer requests and falling outs with teammates. After a 6-6 draw with Charlton sarcastically asked his teammates how many goals the team would need to score to actually win a game.
One of the players Clough did get along with was goalkeeper Peter Taylor and the pair would go on to form perhaps the greatest partnership in managerial history.
WORLD CUP HOME
North Korea line up at Ayresome before their stunning win over Italy
In 1966 Ayresome was chosen, along with Roker Park, as one of the North East hosts for the World Cup. The East End of the ground was covered and 4,000 new seats were added. Attendances proved disappointing but the ground became the ‘home’ of the North Korea team. After an opening defeat to Chile, the North Koreans forced a draw against Russia and then produced one of the biggest shocks in the history of the tournament overcoming Italy 1-0 to qualify for the last eight.
With the club continuing to enjoy only limited success – the inaugural Anglo-Scottish Cup in 1975-76 was one of few trophies won – the mid 1980s brought financial problems. In 1986 they were forced to borrow money from the PFA to pay wages. The liquidator was brought in and the gates to Ayresome Park were locked. Fortunately, local businessman and lifelong fan Steve Gibson put together a consortium and completed a takeover with minutes to spare before the deadline to complete their Football League registration for the 1986-87 season. With the gates at Ayresome locked the first game of the season was played at Hartlepool’s Victoria Ground but the club were able to move back home shortly after.
OFF TO THE RIVERSIDE
The original gates, now at the Riverside Stadium
In the early 1990s plans were drawn up for a new stadium on the banks of the River Tees and the final competitive game at Ayresome took place on 30 April 1995 where a 2-1 win over Luton Town secured promotion to the top flight. A testimonial game for goalkeeper Stephen Pears was the farewell match on the ground and it was used as a training facility the following season before being handed over the developers for the construction of a housing estate.
One of the sculptures on the former site of Ayresome Park
Whilst the main gates at Ayresome were moved to the new Riverside Stadium, remnants of the old stadium, including the wall at the famous Holgate End, remain. There are also a number of small sculptures dotted around the new development – a pair of boots on the former centre-spot, a football where one of the penalty spots used to be, a mound of earth where Pak Doo Ik scored the historic goal for the North Koreans against Italy. Also, many of the street names have Football in connections – The Midfield, The Turnstile, The Holgate – so there is no forgetting what used to stand on the site.
Whilst Middlesbrough never won one of the sport’s major trophies whilst playing at Ayresome Park. It was always a formidable place for away teams, and fans, to visit. In fact on many occasions their home record kept the club in top-flight football. The Riverside is an excellent new stadium with great facilities but, as in many cases when teams move on, the spiritual heart of Middlesbrough remains at Ayresome Park