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Matt Crooks: Emerging RSL Star and Middlesbrough Cult Hero

The English midfielder established himself as a beloved figure in England’s Northeast before his high-profile move to North America.
By Daniel Obinyan

“I think his legacy will be as a cult hero to Middlesbrough fans. Throughout his time here he popped up with a lot of important moments on the pitch, and off the pitch, he was a likable and honest player. I think when people mention Matt Crooks, they’ll probably speak highly of him both as a person and as a player, and as a footballer, to have those two intertwine is probably the pinnacle of the legacy a person can leave behind.”

- Dana Malt, The Boro Breakdown Podcast

“Felt like home ” were the words of an emotional Matt Crooks when asked during an interview in March with The Boro Breakdown Podcast, a popular Middlesbrough fan-run social media platform, to describe in three words, what his time in Middlesbrough felt like. Against the backdrop of public evidence, it feels safe to say that the warm sentiment was equally shared and reciprocated by fans of the North Yorkshire club.

The 30-year-old attacking midfielder completed a transfer to Real Salt Lake in February, but prior to that had established himself as a fan favorite and cult hero at the Riverside, making more than 100 appearances and scoring 20-plus goals for the EFL Championship club. It came then as no surprise that news of his departure was met with mixed and emotional reactions from the club’s supporters.

Indeed, the Englishman developed an adoring relationship with fans of the Riverside club throughout his two-and-a-half-year stay, effectively becoming a cult hero and being affectionately dubbed “Tree” by supporters, a lot of whom took to social media to voice their support for the midfielder after official news of his transfer finally broke.

Middlesbrough Origins and Impact

Crooks joined Middlesbrough in the summer of 2021 and quickly went about establishing his place and legacy within the team, scoring his first goal for the club less than a month later on his home debut in a 2-1 win over Bristol City. During his time at the Riverside, the Englishman made it a habit of popping up with crucial goals in pivotal moments including a brace and stoppage-time winner in a 2-1 victory against Reading, and perhaps most famously, a late equalizer against Manchester United in an FA Cup fourth round away tie which Boro went on to win on penalties, all of which greatly endeared him to the fanbase. Throughout his time at Middlesbrough, Crooks recorded a total of 115 appearances for the club, finding the net on 23 occasions.

During a conversation with Dana Malt, a correspondent from The Boro Breakdown Podcast, when asked about the general fan base's reaction was to the news of Matt Crooks’ departure, she explained,

“I was gutted because I really like him, and he was a crucial player for us. Whenever there was a big moment, Matt Crooks was always in the thick of it and because of that, he was a player who stuck with a lot of the Middlesbrough supporters because he was always involved in crucial moments for us. That made me really like him as a player, and it hurt to see him leave.”

Regarding any specific memories or moments she could recall of Crooks that may have strengthened his relationship with the fanbase, Malt shed further light on some of the midfielder’s match-winning heroics that solidified his place in the hearts of the Boro faithful,

“One moment that really sticks out for me was during a home game against Reading in 2022,” Malt explained. “We were losing the game 1-0 but then started to play with more intensity and it felt like we were on the precipice of an equalizer which eventually arrived courtesy of Crooks. After drawing level, and with the way we were playing at that point, we all felt confident we could turn what had initially seemed a losing situation into a winning one. Then suddenly I remember Isaiah Jones lofting a cross over the top from the right-hand side, and Matt Crooks arrived on the scene again, as he always does in those big moments, to head home, and when I tell you the Riverside went crazy, it went absolutely mental!”

“After the full-time whistle,” Malt Continued, “Crooks came out to meet some of the fans in the ultra-section and started chanting along to the Boro chorus, ‘Oh Wilder said... Crooksy’s hair is fine…’ He joined in singing with the fans and I feel like that moment really struck a chord with the supporters because he had delivered on the pitch with two goals to help us win the game and then came out to celebrate with us after that. He understood the club and the fans, and that struck a strong bond with us. That is the fondest moment of a game that I remember about Matt Crooks, and it will always stay with me.”


A second interview, this time with Boropolis, another popular Middlesbrough fan-run social media platform, helped shed even more light on the topic. Speaking with Chris Cassidy, founder of the platform, on what Crooks’ relationship with the Middlesbrough supporters was like, Cassidy explained,

“I think the fans just had an awful lot of love for Crooks. The day his transfer was officially announced there was a huge outpouring of well wishes across social media from Middlesbrough fans all wishing him the best of luck. I think what was also key about the relationship he built with the fans is that he delivered a lot of big moments and standout goals during his time here, especially in his first season. He scored at Old Trafford too in the FA Cup to help Middlesbrough knock out Manchester United, and that is something Boro fans will never forget. Those types of individual moments are great for any player but because it was the ‘big tree’ everyone almost loved it even more!”

Alongside his exploits and accomplishments on the pitch, Crooks is also just as fondly remembered and respected by the Boro community for his personality and impact off it. Throughout his time at Middlesbrough, he was also known for his work with various charities and foundations including the Peter Doody Foundation, a charity that works to normalize epilepsy and help young adults live normal lives, and the Jordan Sinnott Foundation, for which Crooks serves as the Vice Chair and Trustee.

“I think everyone loved Matt Crooks and appreciated we had a player like him who understood the club and fans to the level he did,” Malt later explained. “Crooks was more than just another player because he truly understood both Middlesbrough Football Club and the Teesside area as well, and he was really embedded in the community. He also has his charity with the Jordan Sinnott Foundation Trust, and I think the club and fanbase respected and got on board with all he did, and he will always be a cult hero. He really made an impact and that’s what he’ll be remembered most for – making an impact.”


Cassidy, from Boropolis, also further revealed,

“I remember after we signed him, he came in and immediately scored on his home debut! Off the pitch as well he did a lot of work and charity work for the club’s foundation and I think a lot of people see that, but if you asked anyone around Middlesbrough if they bumped into Matt Crooks in a supermarket or around the area, he’s the type of person who would stop and have a conversation and be just as interested in other people’s lives as they were about Matt Crooks the Middlesbrough football player.”

“And quite ironically enough,” Cassidy continued, “the day he was flying out to America for his medical, my brother, who was also flying out on a golf trip, bumped into him at Newcastle airport before their flight and they got to chatting. After that, the one thing my brother took away from the whole situation was that despite going to play in the MLS and possibly featuring against Messi in his first game, Crooks came across as that good of a guy that he seemed more interested in my brother’s golf holiday than in being asked about his move to the MLS!”

“From the way he speaks to fans and conducts himself, he seems to do his utmost to spread positivity and that really comes across, so despite being a good footballer, he seems like a really good person as well,” Cassidy concluded.

By all accounts, Matt Crooks’ time at Middlesbrough seems to have been defined the most by two factors, his undeniable ability on the pitch, and his character and personality off it. Crooks made a significant impact during his time at the Riverside, much evidenced by the special nature of the bond he shared with the supporters and how fondly they still remember him. And the legacy he left behind still reverberates within the Riverside community till this day, even with him now plying his trade on the other side of the pond with Real Salt Lake.

“I think his legacy will be as a cult hero to Middlesbrough fans,” Malt concluded. Throughout his time here he popped up with a lot of important moments on the pitch, and off the pitch he was a really likeable and honest player. I think when people mention Matt Crooks, they’ll probably speak highly of him both as a person and as a player. And as a footballer, to have those two intertwine is probably the pinnacle of the legacy a person can leave behind.”

“He practically became a cult hero amongst the fanbase with his performances, but also with his nickname, ‘the tree,’” Cassidy also explained. “And the fact that he’s not our tree any longer is quite upsetting to be honest (laughs). His legacy will be that of a player who truly understood and bought into what it meant to represent Middlesbrough, and everyone just wishes him well, and I think Real Salt Lake have probably gained a lot of Middlesbrough fans who’ll support you as a second club now just because of Matt Crooks!”

It feels safe to say that Cassidy’s latter sentiment might be an overarching one, with Real Salt Lake now perhaps inadvertently and fortuitously securing itself a section of overseas Middlesbrough supporters following the Matt Crooks signing. At the end of her interview, Malt also confirmed this sentiment, explaining,

“Personally, I am actually really interested in watching Real Salt Lake games now because of Matt Crooks, so I am very much a part of that phenomenon of Middlesbrough fans who still want to keep in touch with Crooks in a way even if it is from a distance.”

Transition to Real Salt Lake

Crooks completed his transfer to Real Salt Lake in February, putting pen to paper on a three-year deal. The midfielder made an immediate impact, providing an assist on his MLS debut in a 1-1 draw with St. Louis City SC on Feb. 24, and most recently scored his first goal for the Claret-and-Cobalt with the winning goal in a hard-fought 4-3 victory at Sporting Kansas City on June 19. The quality of Crooks’ performances has been pivotal in helping RSL achieve its best-ever start to a season in franchise history, with a 10W-2L-7T record and 37 points from 19 games, which bodes well for RSL’s prospects as the Club continues its quest for domestic glory.

Indeed, the 30-year-old will be looking to replicate the impact he made during his time at Middlesbrough here at his new home, and if history is anything to go by, RSL fans have every reason to be excited about their new English midfield star.