FOOTBALL, so we are constantly being told, has changed. Gone are the days when a player would grow up supporting his hometown team, devote three or four years to breaking into their senior squad and then spend the best days of his career wearing the same club's armband.
In an era of multi-million pound transfers, increased overseas signings and a growing dislocation between players and the supporters they represent, that simply doesn't happen any more does it
Maybe not at most clubs.
But at Middlesbrough, they tend to do things a little differently.
Not content with boasting one of the most successful Academies in the country, a production line that has thrust the likes of Stewart Downing and Adam Johnson into the international spotlight, the Teessiders have now also appointed a captain who has the club in his DNA.
Born in Stockton and brought up in Eaglescliffe, Matthew Bates watched games at Ayresome Park alongside his father, Brian.
He was at the Riverside when Boro beat Chelsea in the ground's first game We were in the North-East corner, it was brilliant and travelled to Wembley for the 1998 Coca-Cola Cup final with Chelsea.
By that stage, he was already on Middlesbrough's books, having briefly spent time at Manchester United's North-East centre of excellence.
He was part of the 2004 FA Youth Cup triumph, made his senior debut in a televised win over Manchester City later that year, and, loan spells apart, has spent the whole of his six-and-a-half year career with Boro.
Little wonder then, that when the captain's armband was mentioned during a chat at Rockliffe Park earlier this week, it did not take long for the 24-year-old to start beaming with pride.
I'm a local lad who grew up supporting Middlesbrough, so the armband means something, said Bates, who will resume his skippering duties when Boro travel to League Two side Burton Albion for today's FA Cup third-round tie.
It's not just something I hurriedly put on ahead of a match.
I think the gaffer knows how much I care about the club and the area. It's not something you just switch on and off on a match day it's in the blood.
I live in the area, so I go home on a night and Middlesbrough Football Club is still a massive part of my life. My friends phone me, and they're all Boro fans.
They all want the same things I do, and I think that's a bit of a unique thing nowadays. Nothing against all the other lads who are here, but when you move club, I'm not so sure you get that.
Boro have had such a bond in the past, of course, and it is interesting that arguably the club's greatest ever captain has chosen to anoint Bates as one of his successors.
Tony Mowbray was the hero of the liquidation era, the Saltburn-born skipper who overcame all the adversity of the mid-1980s and, metaphorically at least, helped fly Boro to the moon.
Back then, he was the personification of the bond that tied Middlesbrough Football Club to the town and its environs.
Today, with football clubs having become increasingly detached from their local communities, is such a unifying role still relevant
I think it still means something at this club, said Mowbray. It should do, and it certainly will for as long as I'm the manager here.
What maybe makes this place a little different is that this is my town. This is where I was born and brought up and, just like the supporters want to be proud of their football club, so do I.
A captain is an important part of that. How the captain handles himself and is perceived around the town helps dictate how people feel about the football club.
It's about being a figure head. It's about upholding the standards of the club, on and off the pitch, through the good times and bad.
And let's be honest, when it comes to bad times, unfortunately Bates has experienced more than most.
This time last year, he was in America, midway through his rehabilitation from a fourth cruciate knee ligament injury.
Once such setback has been enough to end the career of a host of players, including legendary former Middlesbrough forward, Brian Clough. Only a handful of professionals have survived two. To the best of anyone's knowledge, Bates is the only player in the top four leagues to have suffered four cruciate injuries before his 24th birthday, only to return fitter and stronger than he was before.
Physically, the defender has had to endure a litany of hardships, and even today, his tailor-made training programme is designed to prevent too much strain on his knees. Mentally, however, things have been even tougher.
Those times are always in the back of my head, said Bates, who made a series of trips to his American training retreat in order to devote himself to his recuperation. I might go days on end without thinking about it, but the fact I've had the injuries and come through so many tough times is always there.
You don't forget that. You don't forget the times when you were really, really down, wondering if you would ever play again and wanting to just lock yourself away in the pub so you could get drunk and forget about things.
I've been there, I know what that's like, and the thought of that is always in the back of my head.
It doesn't trouble me, but I can draw on it when I'm feeling down or we've had a bad result. I can always tell myself, Think about where you were a year ago and stop feeling sorry for yourself'. It helps keep things in perspective.
It has certainly provided assistance this season, with Boro having failed to live up to their billing as pre-season promotion favourites and become embroiled in a Championship relegation fight.
As captain, Bates is the public face of that fight, and having previously worked under another former Middlesbrough skipper, the Teessider does not have to look far for inspiration.
The captain I really remember is Gareth (Southgate), he said.
He's the benchmark I measure myself against because he was someone who really took the club to heart.
He might not have been born and raised as a Middlesbrough fan, but he understood the club, the region and what one means to the other. That's important.
This isn't just a club that plays matches every now and then.
It's somewhere that the people of Middlesbrough and Teesside can feel proud of. It belongs to them, and we as players have a duty to remember and respect that.
In the last few years, Middlesbrough's supporters have seen plenty of good things disappear.
International players, their Premier League status, some of the pride that accompanied the club's rise to the upper echelons of the European game.
In the last few weeks, however, they might just have been presented with a captain to inspire them once again.
Source: Northern Echo
Source: Northern Echo