As we mark 25 years since Boro’s final season at Ayresome Park, Manchester Metropolitan University historian Dr Tosh Warwick caught up with former Middlesbrough, Manchester United and England Centre Back Gary Pallister to hear his memories of Ayresome Park, Old Trafford and how new stadiums compare with historic old grounds:
Gary Pallister is one of the greatest and most decorated players to have progressed through the ranks at Ayresome Park. A lynchpin of the Middlesbrough ‘Class of ‘86’ that gained successive promotions, Pally was at the heart of a Boro defence that included the likes of future England international Colin Cooper, future manager Tony Mowbray and legendary full back Gary Parkinson. Pallister was called up to the England squad in March 1988 and made his debut a month later and was later capped against Saudi Arabia whilst a Boro player. His £2.3m transfer to Manchester United in 1989 was a British transfer record fee and Pallister went on to win some of the game’s highest honours at Old Trafford. Having won 22 England caps, Pallister returned to Boro in 1998 alongside fellow 1986 hero Cooper as the pair helped secure the newly-promoted Riverside club’s Premier League status.
What are your early memories of Ayresome Park?
I have plenty of memories of Ayresome Park. I went there as a six-year-old kid for the first time, I think I got a ‘squeeze’ through the turnstiles with my uncle as you would do back in them days. You paid for one turn of the turnstile so if you could squeeze through you managed to get two people in for the price of one. Those are my early memories, watching Stuey Boam, Willie Maddren, Graeme Souness, Bobby Murdoch, John Hickton, Alan Foggon – it’s these names that come back to mind. Most kids at that age were transfixed by the atmosphere and what professional football was all about so, many happy memories.
Who was your childhood Boro hero?
It is difficult to really say because I was a centre forward when I was a youngster so I was looking at John Hickton and Alan Foggon. They were the sort of two that sprang to mind and David Mills came along. I think everybody remembers “six foot two, eyes of blue, Stuey Boam is after you”. He was a larger than life character.
I used to be in the Chicken Run, although I did end up in many places at Ayresome Park, but I remember in the early days being in the Chicken Run watching John Craggs and Terry Cochrane work in tandem down the right hand side. So, I didn’t really have one particular hero or whatever, I just loved football and I was kind of transfixed by the whole occasion of a football match.
How did it compare moving from Ayresome Park to Old Trafford in 1989?
You have got to remember that both stadiums were probably a bit dilapidated. Both stadiums were rundown. I remember the Boys’ End and the side were the away fans stood was falling to pieces and when I went to Old Trafford they had the old Stretford End which was just a bit of a shed. They were both the same, they both were maybe starting to feel the effects of time really, but they had character. The old stadiums were great to play in because you felt the atmosphere and tradition and you felt as though you were a part of that. You lose a little bit of that when you go to new stadiums but obviously football has got to move on, after what happened at Hillsborough you have got to make football stadiums much more safe places for people to be. You walk away from that kind of old feeling that grounds were like that [clubs] maybe started off in to some of the ones that we see now that are suitable for this day and age.
Gary, you won’t thank me for mentioning this but probably your most famous return to Ayresome Park was in 1991/1992 as part of the two-legged League Cup semi-final tie with Manchester United. In the second leg at Old Trafford you cleared the ball off the line from John Hendrie to prevent a goal that might have sent the Boro to Wembley. Do you have any regrets about that?
Only when I’m chatting to John Hendrie and he keeps pulling me about that! A few of the lads always talk about that. Listen, I was so happy when Middlesbrough started to get to cup finals with Robbo and what have you, you kind of hoped it would eventually come and it did. I was playing for Manchester United and I was desperate to win trophies. We’d only won the FA Cup in 1990 and that was my first trophy and I got a taste for it and wanted to win more. Obviously my family are Boro fans and they were hurting in that respect but they were delighted for their son, nephew or cousin or whatever to go on and play in another cup final. I always remember the build up to that and I remember being out with Bernie [Slaven] and Curtis [Fleming]. We were out in The Kirk[levington] and I was winding the two of them up about it, Bernie knew I was trying to wind the two of them up but Curtis bit a little bit [laughs]. It was always difficult playing against Middlesbrough.
You also scored against Middlesbrough at Old Trafford in 1995…
I saw it the other day and I didn’t realise we went down to ten men in that game. I’m not one of them guys going ‘oh, its disrespectful’. You score a goal, you celebrate the goal. Probably at that time I was probably still getting a little bit of stick off the Boro faithful for leaving in 1989. It was always difficult for me, it did play on my mind when I played against Middlesbrough and I don’t know whether other players had that kind of feeling but it was never a comfortable experience for me that’s for sure.
If you had to pick one abiding memory of Ayresome Park what would it be?
It would probably be the Wigan game. After surviving the liquidation of ‘86, I remember it was Swindon playing in the other game and if they’d have won we would have needed a result against Doncaster in the last game. We were getting mixed messages off the fans and off the sidelines that we didn’t have to go and win it so just settle for the draw. We battered Wigan but we couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net. You’re thinking ‘Oh my God’, the fans invaded they thought the final whistle had gone, the referee got them all back off. He got the ball and he said “right lads, I’ve got the ball now, as soon as I blow the whistle run for the dressing rooms. We all pelted off, we found out Swindon hadn’t got the result. For a team that was probably favourites to get relegated then with an average of 21 lacking experience, to go and do what we did will live long in the memory, standing up in the Directors’ Box and that picture of Hammy stood on the fencing. It was just crazy, it was an unbelievable night and unbelievable experience. That’s probably my favourite Ayresome Park memory.
Article © Tosh Warwick
Dr Tosh Warwick is keen to hear Ayresome Park memories of former players, managers and supporters as part of a project marking 25 years since the last season at the famous old ground. Tosh can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.