The late 1990s were a heady, intoxicating time of excess, talent, disappointment and an influx of carlos-kick-a-ball for Middlesbrough. Times that will never be repeated.
In the 1990’s Serie A was king. Italia ’90 had ushered in the decade and in the following 10 years Italian clubs would dominate the European club scene. British audiences were well aware of this dominance thanks to the splendid Channel 4 offering of Football Italia. Gascoigne, Baggio, et al entertained Sunday afternoon viewers with a quality of Calcio that was at times magnificent, technically superior and just more exotic.
The ridiculous barnet of The Divine Ponytail had dominated the landscape of what football fans in the British Isles thought of as a foreign player. The Premier League at it’s inception was still a league dominated by hard men and harder shins. The snarling Vinny Jones epitomised the early 1990s era. English football had defined itself by the iconic image of Terry Butcher and would go on to re-affirm itself with a similar image of a bloodied Paul Ince in Rome.
The ridiculous barnet of The Divine Ponytail had dominated the landscape of what football fans in the British Isles thought of as a foreign player. The Premier League at it’s inception was still a league dominated by hard men and harder shins. The snarling Vinny Jones epitomised the early 1990s era. English football had defined itself by the iconic image of Terry Butcher and would go on to re-affirm it’s self with a similar image of a bloodied Paul Ince in Rome.
It was against this backdrop that Middlesbrough F.C made some of the most ambitious signings ever witnessed in English football and set them up for an astounding season the likes of which had not been seen before or since.
Ambitious chairman Steve Gibson had managed to convince former England captain and Manchester United midfield stalwart Bryan Robson to cut his managerial teeth at the unfashionable north-east club. His managerial career picked up where his playing career left off (although he wasn’t quite done) and in fact he played 25 times in their 1995 Division 1 winning season and the full 38 times in the 1996 debut season in the Premier League in which Boro finished an impressive 12th. The team was made up primarily of English players. The captain during this period was the hard as nails Nigel Pearson. They spent big by signing Nick Barmby for £5.25m and as the season got underway added a touch of flair with the Brazilian Juninho joining the club in October.
England hosted the European Championships that summer. There was a distinct air of optimism in Britain and Boro seemed to epitomise this with their local-boy done good chairman, a brand new stadium with the Riverside and that calling card of 1990’s footballing excitement the player-manager.
The signings made that summer would change the footballing landscape of Britain. This was setting a precedent for all clubs at the top level that they could compete financially with the big clubs across the continent. A mid-level Premier League team could sign established internationals. Audaciously Robson secured the signing of Serie A and Champions League winner Fabrizio Ravenelli from Juventus in a £7m deal.
Juninho’s compatriots Emerson and Branco also joined the club to add more Brazilian flair. The side was developing a flamboyant streak to compliment the English spine, and that was just the new signings hair! Ravenelli stood out with his prematurely grey buzzcut and Emerson bestrode the midfield with a Soul Glo mullet worthy of his skills on the ball.
30,039 fans packed into the Riverside for the season opener against Liverpool. This was the Spice Boys era Liverpool and provided formidable opposition for the new recruits. Liverpool, captained by John Barnes were 1-0 up within 4 minutes thanks to Stig inge Bjornebye. The ‘White Feather’ Ravenelli equalised from the penalty spot after Juninho was hauled down. It was his first of a hat-trick that day and of 16 premier league goals that season. The game finished 3-3 with Boro pegging Liverpool back on 3 occasions. It was a rollercoaster game and a precursor to the forthcoming season of exciting football and goals raining in at both ends.
By mid-September the new foreign recruits were running riot. Boro had netted 14 goals in the first 6 games. Fans were sitting up and taking notice. The attacking football was a joy to watch and the magisterial trio of Ravenelli, Juninho and Emerson were making Boro a tantalising prospect. There was a palpable sense that they would improve on the previous season’s 12th place while playing an entertaining brand of football.
By Christmas however the league form had slumped spectacularly. They won no league games between mid-September and Boxing Day. It was the cup competitions where the style was matched with results.
The F.A Cup campaign saw away victories over Manchester City and Derby before plucky Chesterfield took Boro to a replay in the semi-finals. Juninho had by this stage established himself as a flamboyant and much loved playmaker. Here was Brazil’s no.10 perplexing defences up and down the country with his trickery and impulsiveness. The fans adored the ‘Little Fella’. The stereo-typical Middlesborough image of smokestacks and post-industrial ennui beneath a grey sky was confounded by the mercurial South American who played with a smile on his face.
He was a genuine talent. At 22 years of age he was coveted by many of Europe’s larger clubs and had lit up the pre-season Umbro Cup on English soil in the summer of ‘95. This catapulted him to the English public’s attention and he furthered endeared himself to the Boro faithful as stories emerged of him playing street games with local youngsters.
The League Cup campaign saw 2 big victories over Newcastle and Liverpool in the midst of the appalling league form. A first cup final in Wembley against Martin O’Neill’s Leicester City ended in a 1-1 stalemate after extra time. Ravenelli found the net in Wembley barely 12 months after he had scored in the Champions League final for Juventus. The replay came ten days later and Boro succumbed 1-0 after extra time. These two huge games and ultimate disappointment must surely have taken a lot out of the players.
Disastrously Boro were then forced to postpone a league fixture against Blackburn. A bout of the flu and an injury crisis conspired against Robson and he sought to postpone the game with less than 24 hours to go. Perhaps the pressures of the season had gotten too much for the talismanic manager. It was a fatal misstep just when they could least afford it. The authorities docked 3 points and it would ultimately doom the Teesiders to relegation. Despite a 1-1 draw at Leeds on the final day and a goal from Juninho Boro were relegated with 39 points.
The F.A Cup Final later that month against Chelsea gave Boro the chance to atone. Chelsea was a glamour team with their fair share of foreign talent too. It was a chance for Boro to redeem the season somewhat and truly claim the tag of a ‘cup team’ when the title still carried some weight. Chelsea were also a cup team albeit one on a much stronger footing and had their own famous player-manager in Ruud Gullit. The final is best remembered for Roberto Di Matteo’s long range goal after 43 seconds. Another runners-up medal was of scant consolation. A season that had started so brightly ended in glorious failure.
Middlesbrough went on to achieve relative success in the following years. The amazing season of 1996-97 was perhaps a case of too much too soon. As the Independent match report of that F.A Cup Final surmised:
“Middlesbrough will have a vault of money to spend when Juninho and company are sold. Maybe this time Robson will build a team instead of an unbalanced collection of resentful journeymen and, Juninho apart, posturing stars. Their supporters deserve it.”
Juninho did leave but would make a triumphant return to Teeside in 2002 and finally capture some silverware with the League Cup in 2004. The “posturing stars” must surely refer to the mulleted Emerson whose form had dipped dramatically. Middlesbrough provided some memorable moments that season that will live long in the memory. They reflected the changing times. A team of hard working Englishmen and a trio of mercurial talents straddled the transition between a league devoid of foreign influence and a league dominated by imports.
Muiris Dunworth, Pundit Arena