As a child, Paul Linehan, lead singer and bassist with the evergreen Cork band The Frank and Walters, was faced with a crisis of conscience.
Supporting a football team was proving harder than he had imagined.
“When I was a young fella, maybe about six, the first team I followed was Leeds United. And then when I was seven, I changed to Liverpool. And then both those teams kept winning,” he says.
“This was back in the 70s. I was looking for an underdog team that weren’t very good, so I could root for them. It was like my indie mentality was there from a very early age. So, I was about eight when I started following Middlesbrough and I’ve been following them ever since — so that’s about 40 years.
“I’m not fanatical but I do keep my eye on them. A fella has to follow a team, like.” This weekend, the Teeside club can return to the Premier League for the first time since 2009. With one round of Championship fixtures remaining, they’re currently in second place, two points behind Burnley. But they host third-placed Brighton in a do-or-die clash at the Riverside. A draw will secure them automatic promotion. Anything less and they’ll face into the play-offs for a second successive season.
“It is exciting,” says Linehan.
“They were very unlucky last year because they lost in the play-off final against Norwich. But they have a good chance on Saturday. They need a draw because their goal difference is better than Brighton’s. And the game is at home too.
“They’ve been unlucky. A fortnight ago, they were beating Burnley 1-0 and they conceded an equaliser after 92 minutes. I think they would’ve been up if they’d won. Done and dusted.”
Boro were subsequently held by Ipswich and Birmingham too. The run has cost them top spot and ensured a nervy final day. But it fits the narrative of their drama-filled campaign.
In mid-March, boss Aitor Karanka seemed set to quit the club after storming out of a fractious team-meeting.
He stayed at home while Boro lost to Charlton but was back the following week and has overseen a nine-game unbeaten run since.
Linehan is a fan of the former Real Madrid defender, who served as an assistant to Jose Mourinho during his time in charge of the Spanish giants.
“He’s done very well,” he says. “He’s been there two and a half years. He got them to the play-off final last season — I think he’s a really good manager. He’s friends with Jose and I’m sure he gets some advice from him. Last season, he got a couple of players on loan from Chelsea and Patrick Bamford was one of them. He did very well for Boro and finished as top scorer. I’d hate for them to go into the play-offs again just because of what happened last year.
“I don’t like that system, really. This year, the nearest team to the top three — probably Hull, I’d say — will be about eight points back. I just think they should send the top three teams up.”
It’s a decade since Boro’s last moment in the sun.
In May 2006, they reached the final of the Uefa Cup and made it to the semi-finals of the FA Cup as Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Yakubu and Mark Viduka all flourished under Steve McClaren. But Linehan’s favorite Middlesbrough vintage is the mid-90s side that were promoted to the top-flight under Bryan Robson.
“They dropped out of the top division for a long, long time and it was only when they came back up that there was that great spell with Juninho and Fabrizio Ravanelli. That’s when it became easier to watch them. I really enjoyed that era. You could see them on Match of the Day. When they were in the lower leagues, it didn’t get as much coverage — you’d have to go and seek it out.
“My favourite player was Juninho — I thought he was brilliant... and then he went off to Atletico Madrid. And there’s Stewart Downing as well. He started out at Boro before heading to Villa and then Liverpool. Now he’s back again.”
Another name crops up a few times throughout our conversation: David Armstrong. The left-winger with the strands of long blonde-hair that inevitably gave way to premature balding, was an iconic and influential figure for Boro throughout the 70s and a childhood hero of Linehan’s.
So, if Boro do get promoted this weekend, can we expect a photo of Armstrong on the next Franks’ single as a tribute?
“You never know. We’ll get him to do the Cillian Murphy bit in ‘Stages’:
“For many years I had grown cynical of life as I witnessed too much, too much.
“But with the passing of time I’ve learned again to love.”
It could be a Boro anthem.