In 1995, Middlesbrough were promoted back to England’s top flight after a two-season absence. Before long, they began to make some eye-catching, and markedly uncharacteristic, foreign signings. Champions League winner Fabrizio Ravanelli arrived from Juventus, Juninho was tasked with delivering the Samba flair in attack, and highly-rated young manager Bryan Robson was at the helm. Alongside an exciting new stadium in the Cellnet Riverside, it appeared the start of a golden period for the club.
Another piece of this masterplan was the signing of Emerson Moisés Costa, a Brazilian midfield general, for £4m from Porto. Having helped that club to back-to-back league titles, and been courted by a host of top European clubs after being crowned Portuguese Player of the Year, it appeared very shrewd business.
Signing a four-year contract in May 1996, the Brazilian was unveiled next to manager Robson, both men beaming in a press conference. Meanwhile, posing outside in his new colours, the distinctively unkempt Emerson delighted crowds outside with an array of flicks and kick-ups on a clear spring day.
This brightness was to encapsulate the beginnings of Emerson’s time on Teesside. Debuting on opening day of the 1996/97 Premiership season, in a 3-3 draw with Liverpool, Emerson impressed with his marshalling of the midfield. Initial optimism would prove well merited, as Boro started the season in a positive vein.
Emerson would grab his first goal in England in an early September 1996 fixture with West Ham, opening the scoring in a 4-1 victory. Receiving the ball on the outside of the box from compatriot Juninho, he would jink past one defender before rifling into the top corner from all of 25 yards.
It is for these spectacular long-range efforts that Emerson would be best remembered, with another scorcher coming in a 7-0 drubbing of Hereford United in the League Cup second round. Three weeks later came an arguably more significant goal from distance, as a cleared ball was met with a ferocious piledriver that nearly took the net off its moorings in a 2-2 draw at Sunderland.
Then, in October 1996, came another starring League Cup performance, as Emerson scored and generally dominated from the first minute of 5-1 victory over Huddersfield. His performance was such that, following the game, Terriers manager Brian Horton walked into the post-match press conference and reportedly simply exclaimed to journalists as he took his seat, “Emerson, wow!”
Regardless of the jaw-dropping strikes, resulting Samba dance celebrations, and good performances, matters were not as positive as they may seem for Boro. Between September and December 1996, they failed to win a league game, enduring such results as a 4-0 loss at Southampton and a 5-1 drubbing by Liverpool.
Meanwhile, there were far more pressing issues concerning Emerson. Less than impressed by the impending winter weather in north-east England, and amidst rumoured interest from Bobby Robson at Barcelona, the midfielder went missing. It is this that fuels part of his legend. Back in his homeland, Emerson told media he was unable to return owing to his wife suffering from depression brought on by the prospect of living in north-east England.
Nevertheless, after Steve Gibson threatened to banish him to the reserves, Emerson returned to the fold. The Brazilian played a part in taking Boro to both the FA and League Cup finals, although the initial sparkle was gone. Both showpiece occasions were to end in defeat, whilst Middlesbrough’s league form continued to plummet. For all his talent Emerson would prove unable to help the side avoiding relegation to Division One, particularly blamed for a lacklustre display at Leeds on the final day.
The prospect of away trips to Crewe, Port Vale and Stockport left it widely expected all the foreign stars would exit Teesside. Indeed Juninho was sold to Atlético Madrid, whilst Ravanelli went to Marseille, but Emerson curiously remained. Starting in the opening day win over Charlton, he would form a good understanding with new signing Paul Merson. Their partnership was well displayed in a 2-1 win away at Sunderland in late September 1997, with Merson setting up another long-range thunderbolt from Emerson.
A month later came another large element of the Emerson legend, namely concerning another person. The man in question was a compatriot called Fabio, someone of whom little is known. The most widely accepted idea was he was Emerson’s cousin visiting, although others claim he was his brother-in-law. Regardless of the legitimacy of these claims, he had been at Middlesbrough for a period playing reserve team football.
In late-October 1997, an injury crisis led to Fabio being drafted in at right-back for the league match with Huddersfield. The legend goes he starred in this game, displaying incredible technique and being Man of the Match. However, bizarrely, no highlights exist of Fabio in this game, and he failed to directly contribute in a 3-0 win. His reserve appearances then dried up before he was released shortly after, vanishing without trace until reappearing some years later in the German fourth division.
Back to Emerson, things failed to get any easier. He was still struggling to fully adjust to life in the north-east, claiming he had tried to convince his parents to move to Middlesbrough, only to be “unable to convince them to even set foot on the aircraft.” The persistent interest from Barcelona meant at the end of 1997 Emerson went AWOL in Brazil again. Tired of this petulance, in January 1998, the decision was taken to sell the player to La Liga side Tenerife.
Several years in Spain with Deportivo and Atlético were followed by a curious return to the UK in 2003 with Rangers. He lasted 15 games there before ending up in the admittedly warmer climes of Greece, first with Skoda Xanthi and then AEK. The former of these clubs were poetically drawn against Boro in the first round of the 2005-06 UEFA Cup, meaning Emerson returned to Teesside some seven years after going on strike. He was unable to prevent his old side winning 2-0, however.
Reflecting on his time in the north-east, the Brazilian remarks how contrary to popular opinion he was most fond of both Middlesbrough as a city and its good-natured people. He did, though, reserve less praise for the club, stating how at times they treated him “like a manual labourer.” Nevertheless, with hindsight he wishes he’d done things differently. “I did cause problems for the club, but I was young and it is different now. I made a mistake and should have stayed,” he told Sky Sports in 2003. A cult hero on Teesside, how Middlesbrough fans wish that were true.
By James Kelly @jkell403