George Friend, Middlesbrough FC's club captain, has become a keen supporter of the steel community. Scott Wilson reports.

WHEN George Friend joined Middlesbrough in the summer of 2012, he freely admits he knew next to nothing about the importance of industry to Teesside’s economic and cultural identity. Born in Barnstaple, and raised on his family’s farm in rural Devon, the footballing full-back had spent his life surrounded by sheep rather than steel, fields instead of factories.

“I didn’t know a lot about the industrial links because I’d never been up to the North-East,” says Friend. “You’ve obviously heard of things, but quite honestly, I didn’t know much about the area at all. But the longer I’ve been living here, the more I’ve realised the importance of it and just how integral it is to the area.”

Fast forward seven-and-a-half years, and it is safe to say the 32-year-old has had something of a crash-course in industrial reality.

As the captain of Middlesbrough Football Club, Friend doesn’t just lead his team on the field, he feels duty-bound to act as the figurehead for an entire region. So, when Redcar’s SSI steelworks was mothballed in 2015, resulting in 2,200 workers being made redundant, Friend didn’t want to pay lip service to the devastation that was playing out on his doorstep.

Working with the MFC Foundation, the football club’s charitable arm, he coaxed his team-mates into posing for a topless charity calendar that raised more than £12,000 to help support the ‘Team Talk’ project that worked with males aged 40 and over who had recently been made redundant. Some footballers would have ended their interest there, but Friend attended meetings, gave talks and worked with Foundation staff to assess what kind of support was required.

He remains involved with the initiative today, and for all that he has been able to celebrate on the football field, helping Middlesbrough win promotion to the Premier League in 2016, he regards the success of ‘Team Talk’ as one of his proudest achievements.

“It’s done lots of different things,” says Friend, during a rare quiet moment at Middlesbrough’s Rockliffe Park training ground, near Hurworth. “It taught people how to write a CV because some of these guys needed to change career. And it paid for somewhere where people could just meet and talk about how they were feeling and what was going on, talk about losing their job and the pressure of that and having to stop the routine of going in every day and doing what they did, their dad did, their grandad did.

“I think that was the biggest thing, it helped all those people. So many people were saying, ‘Oh, my wife is getting sick of me sitting at home’, so even just getting out to go somewhere was important. It sounds such a trivial thing, but it had a big effect.

“I’m not saying it’s cured what happened. It’s not hidden the effects of something that has been devastating for the area, but if it could have at least helped even five people, then that’s great because it’s done something rather than not doing anything.”

Footballers can get a bad press, but at Middlesbrough, there is an acknowledgement of the club’s responsibilities as one of the few institutions that has retained a central place in Teesside’s social and cultural fabric while the region has undergone a series of profound changes.

It helps that the club’s chairman, Steve Gibson, is a passionate Teessider with his hometown’s best interests at heart, but the connection goes much deeper than the boardroom. As a brand, MFC can reach individuals and communities that might otherwise be all-but-impossible to engage. That brings opportunities, but also a sense of civic duty.

“I always remember someone telling me in my very earliest days here, ‘That Boro badge carries so much weight’,” says Friend. “You can walk into a school and if you’re wearing a top with a Boro badge on, as opposed to a normal plain jacket, the difference that can make straight away is incredible.

“You don’t have to say anything, and it’s not just schools, it’s any walk of life, any industry. That badge somehow just brings people together. It’s because of the importance of the club right across Teesside, but it’s also because of the great work it’s been doing and the respect people have for that.”

That respect is mutual. Friend might have been an outsider when he joined Middlesbrough from Doncaster Rovers, but with his family firmly embedded into Teesside life, he has grown to love a place he is proud to call home.

“I don’t think people realise how good an area this is until they come here,” he explains. “Maybe that’s the same for a lot of places, but while everywhere can have their lovely areas, the people here are definitely different.

“That is genuinely true. I don’t want to say they’re angels because I don’t think they want to be angels, but I always know that if you’re from Teesside, you’re able to hold your own. You’ll always say something, and whether it’s good or bad, sometimes it needs to be said.

“That’s a quality for me, I like that about a Teessider. Whether it’s positive or negative, they’ll say something and tell you something, and normally it’s positive because they love the area. They’re very proud of the area, and they’re warm, friendly, kind. But it’s the honesty that really comes through for me, and it’s built from a hard-working background. There’s not many areas like that I don’t think, where people reflect their background and their upbringing as clearly as here.”