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The 'social club' bringing people together in lockdown

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A photo of Mike McGrother and crisp sandwich supremo Ben Taylorson at a Ali Brownlee Social Club event

Ali Brownlee's passion and personality never failed to bring people together.

And after such a difficult year, the Teesside camaraderie he created has never been needed more.

In a bid to tackle loneliness and isolation in Middlesbrough and across the region, a new project which aims to bring people back together has been inspired by the late Boro commentator and radio presenter.

With the blessing of Ali's family and help with a grant from Middlesbrough Council, musician Mike McGrother created the Ali Brownlee Social Club.

It started as an online space during the Covid lockdown, recreating the buzz of conversation, shared laughs and passionate debates you'd find in any typical club - with anyone welcome to join in, from anywhere in the world.

And as coronavirus restrictions ease, some social club members will meet in person ahead of the England football match at the Riverside Stadium on Wednesday. But don't worry, it will still be beamed live across the internet.

Mike said: "Ali loved talking and listening. He was the consummate communicator - the ‘Voice of the Boro'.

"And so, when Covid came along and I was thinking, like the world, of ways to help people cope, feel less lonely, feel better connected - Ali kept popping into my head.

"I kept wondering how he would have dealt with lockdowns. How he would have used his skills, his personality, and his humanity to bring people together.

"And he would have treated the challenge of Covid as an opportunity. A hill to be climbed. A silence to be filled. A last minute penalty to be saved. He would have been that voice that let us know normality would return - and we would feel better."

At first, guests joined in on Zoom with the chat ranging from local history and identity, music and football, while Mike sang songs by Teesside musicians and welcomed some special guests - such as Curtis Fleming and Ben Taylorson, who took the internet by storm with his weird and wonderful crisp sandwich combinations.

Livestreamed to Facebook, each of the informal get-togethers is then watched by thousands of people.

The online stream aspect of the club will continue, to welcome anyone who wants to take part or simply follow along - but on Wednesday, the live and in-person social club will be held at Middlesbrough's Base Camp venue at 6pm.

Mike continued: "I feel as though the inevitable decline of the social club has contributed to a decline in men's mental health, that was something that had happened before Covid but it's really been brought into focus.

"I think the social club has been therapeutic for people - we've had great feedback, and there's been Teesside ex-pats joining in from all over the world.

"As more restrictions ease, the social club will evolve and we expect it to become a part of the Middlesbrough Football Club match day experience going forward."

Mike has thanked Middlesbrough Council for supporting the social club, made possible with £14,160 from the Carers Grants and Better Care fund.

Mieka Smiles, Executive Member for Communities and Education at Middlesbrough Council, said: "We all know that lockdown has been hard on everyone and Mike's project has offered a bit of normality, light and friendly conversation in an innovative format.

"Mike's channelled his amazing creative force into the initiative and Ali's wonderful legacy has given it extra poignancy.

"The fact he's now taking it one step further - at a tremendous Boro location - is great news and means that it'll keep bringing comfort to all those involved."

You can find out more by visiting the social club's Facebook, Twitter or Instagram pages @brownleesocial or via the Base Camp website.

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