Middlesbrough’s Mad Decade: Part 1

By Justin Bodanac

Football memories work in funny ways. As the years pass, we can forget the minutiae of each moment. Which foot did he hit it on? Was it the quarters or round of 16? Home or away leg? What we don’t forget however is the feeling. Long after the whistle has blown, it’s the emotion of the moment that sticks with us most – the disappointment, the jubilation, the outrage, the joy.

Between 1996 and 2006, Middlesbrough Football Club brought feeling to fans and neutrals alike with wild abandon. Promotion, relegation, silverware, domestic and European cup finals, a cherubic Brazilian genius, determined English managers, a procession of accomplished international artisans, and goals against Manchester United aplenty. It’s a melange of big characters and big moments that swell and crash out-of-order in my mind. But what remains for anyone that witnessed it, is the sheer thrill of the ride.

The Eighties had not been kind to Middlesbrough. After decades of fluctuating fortunes, a string of crises in 1986 found the club (est. 1876) on the precipice of folding. After borrowing from the PFA to pay player wages, the club was locked out of Ayresome Park on account of massive debt accrual. A lack of proven liquidity meant that the club could not re-register for the 1986/87 season. Extinction looked inevitable. However with mere minutes to deadline, 28-year-old club director/local boy Steve Gibson corralled a group to front the capital required. Middlesbrough had their lifeline, and in Gibson, their eventual chairman and majority shareholder.

The club became a founding member of the inaugural 1992/93 Premier League, suffering relegation that season. But it was the 1995/96 season that proved the launch pad for the heady decade to follow.

Freshly promoted under player-manager Bryan Robson, playing at the new Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough would exhibit a creativity that would belie their post-industrial Yorkshire surrounds.

Of course, none of this academia was apparent to me as a twelve-year-old living in Melbourne, trying to catch a scant glimpse of the league on telly. But what did become apparent in the Robson years was that unlike other bottom-half sides, Middlesbrough was a team you wanted to watch – week in week out – for better or worse. And it all kicked off with the arrival of a remarkable fellow from Brazil.

Brazilian talisman Juninho in action for Middlesbrough.

It’s inescapable that when you talk about Middlesbrough, you talk about Juninho. Not Olympique Lyonnais Juninho. Osvaldo Giroldo Júnior from São Paulo. The Little Fella. Forever from this day forward The Definitive Article and the one imbedded in Teesside hearts for all eternity. Over three separate spells at the club, he would come to embody everything that was good at Middlesbrough – and exemplify the unbreakable bond certain players have with their supporters.

A five-foot-five-inch dynamo in an oversized Errea shirt; he rode even the most cynical challenge raising nothing more than an exuberant smile. He played with a joy and sincerity that was few and far between. With unwavering nerve and unflappable commitment, he would thread runs through the opposition half, notching goals and assists with genuine delight.

São Paulo’s loss was an incalculable gain for The Smoggies. Already a member of the Seleção, he would set the tone for a number of creative and charismatic characters that followed from abroad… Though nothing could prepare Teesside for the utter madness of what was to come next.

If there was one season that captured the explosive potential and exasperating shortcomings of Robson’s Middlesbrough, it was 1996/97. In came Fabrizio Ravanelli, fresh from Champions League victory with Juventus. Juninho’s compatriot and defensive midfielder Emerson also arrived from Porto (as did a young Aussie keeper named Mark Schwarzer, but more on him later).

The White Feather announced himself with typical panache on debut, scoring a hatrick at Anfield. If Juninho lived in the flow of the attacking channels, then Ravanelli made the rigid penalty box his own, stalking and executing opportunities almost exclusively within its confines. The pair looked more like father and son than teammates, yet the chemistry was undeniable. While Emerson created the transition out of the middle, Juninho and Ravanelli wreaked joyous havoc up front together. The sight of the little Brazilian perched in celebration atop the big Perugian became a familiar scene to anyone with a passing interest in the club.

In the league, their first goal in a 3-3 classic at Old Trafford showed them at their best. Five Boro players work the ball from right to left across United’s patch with an array of one and two-touch passes. Juninho weaves in and out of play before dropping off wide-left in the box. Receiving a pearler of a lay-off from Craig Hignett, he opens his body slightly and scythes a low curler across Peter Schmeichel into the far right corner. This was not 2010 Barcelona, but 1997 Middlesbrough.

That season Juninho scored 15 goals in all competitions, while Ravanelli notched an astonishing 31 times. Middlesbrough would make it to the FA Cup final, losing to Chelsea 2-0. They would make an even more impressive run to the League Cup final (defeating Liverpool and Newcastle along the way), ultimately losing to Leicester 1-0 in a replay. An emerging reputation as cup specialists would grow over the coming years and was indicative of their ability to beat anyone on their day… It’s all the more staggering that they were relegated that very same year.

In a decision that was either naivety or negligence, Boro postponed a fixture against Blackburn at too short a notice to comply with FA regulations. The ensuing penalty docked Boro three critical points. On the final day of the season they travelled to fierce Yorkshire rivals Leeds needing a victory to survive. They drew 1-1, saving Coventry City in the process. The post-match sight of an inconsolable Juninho would only bring him closer to Teesside hearts. For those of us watching abroad, they left our screens, but remained in our minds.

Manager Bryan Robson consoles Juninho after Boro are relegated at Elland Road.

Out went Ravanelli and Juninho. In came Gascoigne and Merson. Yes. Really. Gazza and The Magic Man – two of the most brilliant yet self-destructive Englishmen in the history of the known universe were responsible for Boro’s 1997/98 campaign back to the top flight. It could have gone so horribly wrong. It could have been an implosion of mythic proportions. Yet Merson scored 16 – earning an England recall for France 98 in the process – and Boro finished second. They also made the League Cup final again, beating Liverpool in the semis, but losing to Chelsea 2-0.

Boro was back in the Premier League and over the following two seasons Robson steadied the ship on relatively calm seas. Gazza and Merson left, Juninho came back on a welcome loan spell from Atletico Madrid, but it was mid-table fare. The highs weren’t as high, but the lows weren’t as low either. Boro fans could be forgiven for taking this with encouragement given all that they had endured.

By 2000/01 something was brewing and Middlesbrough began to do what they did best  – they were interesting again. Colombian striker Hámilton Ricard possessed a huge aerial threat and a knack for pressuring the opposition into costly mistakes. Although he went missing for stretches, he was the club’s top-scorer the two previous seasons. Paul Ince was in upon his return from Inter Milan, adding leadership and taking the captaincy. Mark Schwarzer had established himself as outright first choice in goals; adept at tolerating both the frypan and the fire. France 98 and Euro 2000 winner Christian Karembeau also arrived from Real Madrid. His confidence and midfield presence added sophistication to the team’s movement. To top it off, the mercurial, injury-prone, stoney-faced Champions League winner Alen Bokšić rolled in from Lazio.

As an Aussie with a Croatian family, his arrival piqued my interest. Bokšić had been cruelly ruled out of Croatia’s stunning third-place finish at France 98 through injury. While Zvonimir Boban, Davor Šuker and Robert Prosinečki sent my teenage football obsession to unprecedented heights, Bokšić had cut a dejected figure in the stands. Yet here was the chance to see him play every week, to understand what I’d missed two years earlier. He rarely smiled. He reportedly trained even less. But he would do just enough at just the right times to keep Boro going.

Croatian star Alen Bokšić in action against Manchester United.

That season they beat Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle. Big clubs. They stomped a vintage Arsenal side 3-0 at Highbury. Effectively ending the Gunners’ title challenge that year. If the cynics can allude to the two own-goals Arsenal conceded that day, the admirers can retort with the third. Human fridge Dean Windass collects a Karembeau throw and goes directly through the middle of the park to Ricard. Although Ricard fluffs his initial touch, Windass regains possession and slides the ball to Bokšić on the left side of the box. Bokšić then back-heels the ball into the space he’s just vacated, allowing the on-running Ricard to smack it low and true between David Seaman’s leg and the post. It was equal parts chaos and creativity – succeeding despite its potential to fall apart at every turn.

Unfortunately for Robson, the chaos outweighed the results that season. With his blessing, Terry Venables was installed as Head Coach to co-manage the side in a last ditch bid to avoid relegation. They had worked together previously with the England team, but it was a strangely humiliating look for Robson. Boro finished in 14th and avoided the drop, but Robson’s time was done. He looked like a man who no longer believed in himself. The perception of him as a manager also took a hit. His seven-year reign ended with no silverware and no higher than 9th in the league. A harsh summation that doesn’t acknowledge all that he brought to the club. But as the stats faded in time, the memories remained, and Boro fans would warm to him in later years.

The ups and downs at Middlesbrough eventually saw Bryan Robson depart the club.

Venables rejected the offer to manage Boro the following season, his ambitions proving too big for the River Tees. Instead, he would take charge at Leeds United during their Premier League demise two years later. So Gibson turned to another Sir Alex acolyte for the Boro job: Steve McClaren, the unproven Assistant Manager of Manchester United. McClaren wouldn’t so much reinvent Boro as refine it. It would be the start of their most successful period in history.

In Part Two: How Middlesbrough got to the 2005/06 UEFA Cup Final and made Steve McClaren the most successful English manager of The Noughties.

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