This feature is part of Virtuoso
Diane Umpleby was there in 1986 when Middlesbrough nearly died. She’s been to Ayresome Park and the Riverside. She’s followed them into Europe, twice, she’s seen them win the cup, and she’ll be there this season, to watch them go up – hopefully. In short, she’s Boro. But she doesn’t remember much about 17 August 1996.
Sit her down with a cup of tea and a nice slice of cake and she’d tell you all about what came after. The two cup finals, relegation, Juninho sitting on the turf at Leeds on the final day, the game that wasn’t against Blackburn, and the fights that the big fella up front had with Mikkel Beck, Neil Cox and Curtis Fleming.
She remembers what it felt like before, too. The shock – no other word for it but shock – that her boys, her Teesside boys, the team that had been scratching around for John Hendrie, Jaime Moreno and Uwe Fuchs, had rummaged around chairman Steve Gibson’s haulage business and found £7m and £42,000 a week from somewhere to bring in a man who played for Italy and who’d just scored in the Champions League final. But the day itself? The hat-trick against Liverpool? Nothing.
Three months earlier, alongside Gianluca Vialli and Alessandro del Piero, in front of Didier Deschamps, Antonio Conte and Paulo Sousa, Fabrizio Ravanelli had been in his element. Twelve minutes into the final of what most people were still calling the European Cup, he’d poked in the opening goal for Juventus against Louis van Gaal’s Ajax and, while Jari Litmanen would find the Dutch side an equaliser, it was Ravanelli’s Bianconeri who ended up winning on penalties. He’d scored five goals in his 11 games for the national side and was at his peak.
But the Old Lady had eyes for Alen Bokšić and Christian Vieri, not to mention Zinedine Zidane, and so she could take or leave the White Feather. It took a lot of money – the third highest transfer fee an English club had ever paid, and the biggest wage packet in the Premier League at the time – but by their third visit of the summer to Turin, Boro manager Bryan Robson and chief executive Keith Lamb had turned Ravanelli’s head to Teesside.
It started spectacularly. Boro had finished 12th the season before, a forgettable season save for the fact that they’d signed a 21-year-old Nick Barmby and, rather improbably, Juninho. But this year, their second back in the Premier League and with Emerson coming from Porto to join his fellow Brazilian on Teesside, was when it was all meant to come together.
Within four minutes of the start of the new campaign, it was 1-0 to Liverpool, Stig Inge Bjørnebye finding too much space in the box. Typical Boro. Then, just before the half-hour, Ravanelli arrived – a penalty, larruped into the corner after the wriggling Juninho had been dragged down by a committee of floundering Liverpool defenders.
Two minutes later, 2-1; John Barnes as free in the box as Juninho hadn’t been. Then, Ravanelli again, sliding in to meet Neil Cox’s low cross from the right. Then, 3-2 – can nobody on Teesside defend? And, just as the game entered its last 10 minutes, Boro players swarming forward, bumbling through the defence as much as jinking past it, for the ball to fall once more to the left foot of Ravanelli, who pulled past David James into the bottom right. The foam-fingered fans went wild. Buon giorno, Inghilterra. Mi chiamo Fabrizio.
They weren’t particularly great goals, but this was a hat-trick – a hat-trick! – and against Liverpool of all teams. After all that money, the new stadium and such ambition, it looked like maybe, just maybe, Boro had arrived in the big time. For a little while, the heady days continued. The team lost to Chelsea and then drew at Forest, but followed that up with three wins on the bounce and a 7-0 hammering of Hereford in the League Cup in which Ravanelli scored four.
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But it didn’t last. After beating Everton 2-1 in mid-September, Middlesbrough failed to win another league game until Boxing Day and even four straight victories in March weren’t enough to save them from the drop. Meanwhile, Ravanelli was starting to rock the boat, telling Jan Åge Fjørtoft that he wanted to play alongside him because “for me, [Danish striker] Mikkel Beck – Serie B”, and complaining – not entirely without justification – about the difference in the training facilities to those back whence he had come.
Barely had the season finished than he was off to Marseille and there may have been more truth than the faithful were prepared to hear in his parting shot. “There is no way Middlesbrough will be a big club,” he said, “while it is run in such an amateurish way.”
James Umpleby would have been 15 that day back in 1996. Like his mum, he’s followed the Boro for most of his life and he remembers the buzz, the party atmosphere, the full house in a still-new stadium, the feeling that no-one in the ground had been looking forward to a season quite so much before. He remembers pulling his shirt over his head when he scored down the park, like they all did – like Ravanelli did. He remembers the Macarena song (“Ehhhh Ravanelli!”) and how surreal it was having “seen him on the telly.” How on that day, it felt like the Italian had scored with every shot he had, when maybe he hadn’t.
Maybe that’s why Ravanelli is remembered as fondly as he seems to be. He scored 31 goals in his only season on Teesside – and no-one has even reached 20 since – but it wasn’t really about the goals. It was that for a little while, he embodied a feeling, of glamour and style and above all hope, and while the details fade, you don’t forget that. It was a scruffy hat-trick in what would become a painful season but, for a fleeting moment, this was Middlesbrough, and here was Ravanelli. Everything seemed possible.
By Harry Reardon @hsreardon
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp