As featured on Guardian Sport
I never cared much for Middlesbrough Football Club. Growing up they always struck me as a bit of a nothing club, with an average team, a fancy new stadium and a few loyal fans. That was, of course, until the mid-1990s. When they were promoted to the Premier League in 1995, the north-east club decided that England’s most promising young manager, Bryan Robson (yes, Bryan Robson), deserved some cash to spend. The usual names were linked: mid-table, technically barren footballers. Then Juninho signed. “Juninho?” I thought. “He’s only got one name.” A Brazilian on Teesside. Whatever next?
Well, another one. Emerson, this time. The shaggy-haired bulldozer of a midfielder. He looked like he belonged in a cave. Unkempt, untidy and comically serious, who was this cliché-defying Brazilian? I had to wait to find out more.
The spending didn’t stop there. In came Champions League winner and Italy international Fabrizio Ravanelli from Juventus. I always wondered why he left Turin for Middlesbrough until I went there a few years ago. It reminded me of Middlesbrough.
That said, the White Feather could play. He was a pure goalscorer – intelligent in his movement and lethal when given a chance. He had two good feet, all the Italian tricks up his sleeve and the mysterious, often untrustworthy look of someone who’s gone grey far too soon. As a Liverpool supporter, I realised how good he was when he scored a sublime hat-trick on his debut in a thrilling 3-3 draw on the opening day of the 1996/97 season.
There were others too. Mikkel Beck, a Denmark international, came from Fortuna Köln. Branco, capped 72 times by Brazil, arrived with a belly as big as his pay packet, and the “United Nations of Football” were formed. I still don’t know who coined that phrase but it’s excellent. If only they could have looked into the future and seen that English football was to change dramatically over the next two decades.
Robson put together a team with flair and many people thought they could genuinely challenge for the title. Sadly, it was to end in the bitter disappointment of relegation in May 1997, but not before they wowed fans across the country and made Clayton Blackmore and Robbie Mustoe seem that little bit more exotic than they were.
They were a team for the day and they took it one match at a time. Perhaps this is why they made three appearances at Wembley between 1996 and 1998. They may have lost the finals, but on their day they could mix it with the very best. It’s easy to sit here as an admirer looking back almost 20 years later but I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for Boro fans at the time.
The highs and lows of the season and the subsequent relegation often mask the brilliance of the team and the fact that they remain one of the most entertaining sides in the Premier League era. They scored 51 goals that season, the highest from any team outside the top seven. That’s in spite of being relegated.
Ravanelli scored 16 sumptuous goals, including hat-tricks against Liverpool and Derby. Juninho bamboozled defenders and holding midfielders with his sharp turns, close control and set-pieces. Throw in 12 goals and it’s clear to see why Middlesbrough had one of the most naturally gifted players in the league, along with Georgi Kinkladze and Eric Cantona.
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Looking back, the true influence of that team is not what it achieved in the short term, but the fantasy it encouraged in English football. It was a team that welded together the old-school industrious nature of the national game with a unique foreign flavour that would ultimately elevate the Premier League to heights. It was a watershed moment: a defining season of failure that led to the ultimate success.
This Middlesbrough team set the tone for the first wave of mass migration of players to the Premier League. Would we have seen the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha, Paolo Di Canio, Eyal Berkovic and Christophe Dugarry without this season of imagination? Perhaps, but the box office signings proved to Europe, and the wider world, that English football was ready to enter a brave new phase. It wasn’t long after that a skinny, bushy-haired Frenchman arrived and banned Mars bars at Arsenal.
Crucially, Robson’s side also proved that the underdog had legs to stand on. The traditional powers no longer held monopoly over the few exotic names that decided to join this ever-expanding, free-flowing league. The end-to-end fantasy football life was open to everyone.
The Riverside, or the Cellnet Stadium as it was known back then, was also different. There were boxes for directors. The pitch was immaculate and the red seats had a glow that just didn’t shine anywhere else. This was my saved game from Premier Manager coming to life.
Not everyone agrees that this Boro team was pioneering, but let’s not forget that this was a time when Duncan Ferguson was smashing heads at Goodison, Dion Dublin was scoring crucial goals to keep Coventry alive, Dean Sturridge was one of the league’s best youngsters, and Wimbledon were still a football club.
It’s also important to remember that while multi-million-pound deals for foreign stars are commonplace today, back then they registered on the Richter scale. There was only Football Italia and James Richardson on Channel 4 to give us a taste of Europe. To see a foreign star’s skills, technique and flair was extraordinary. Sometimes I think we’re the spoilt generation of English football.
Perhaps the revolutionary idea of bringing in foreign stars to gain success was shallow in 1996. It still is to some today – we’ve just accepted the reality. And so, as quick as a young boy’s dreams came to life watching Brazilian schemers and Italian poachers light up the Premier League, the dream died. Middlesbrough were relegated on a technicality following their inability to field a team against Blackburn. The subsequent three-point deduction was the difference between safety and relegation. It was a shambolic end after a scintillating start and proved that the foundations were weak. They were simply never built to last.
It’s intriguing to think what could have transpired at the Cellnet had the club avoided relegation. Would we have seen more big names come in from abroad? Where would Middlesbrough be today if they had fulfilled their commitment to fielding 11 players that week?
It was the craziest of seasons and I suspect that, while Boro fans suffered frequent frustration, they look back on that team with the same fondness I do as a neutral. After all, beauty and imagination is what truly makes us love this sport.
By Omar Saleem @omar_saleem