The early years of the Premier League saw a wave of exciting number 10s come swelling on the shores of an array of clubs. This was in part thanks to Eric Cantona’s influence at Manchester United; clubs looked to recreate its efficacy by recruiting mercurial and exotic deep-lying forwards who could play between the lines and dictate the play.
English football didn’t produce players in this mould, and so clubs looked overseas to find their star. In addition to Cantona, there were plenty of big names: Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola were two, but the groundbreaking signing was a Brazilian by the name Juninho Paulista. On the way up when he moved to newly-promoted Middlesbrough in 1995, to much fanfare, he became the defining figure of their time back in the top tier.
Juninho’s senior career had started at Ituano FC, where he progressed steadily, eventually catching the eye of Telê Santana’s São Paulo after the youngster had scored one and earned the Man of the Match award against the Tricolor. Despite the talent the club had at their disposal, it did not take too long for Juninho to make his mark in the hole.
He was part of numerous honours won by São Paulo in the short span he spent at the club, including the Copa Libertadores, the Supercopa Libertadores, and the Intercontinental Club. For all his efforts, though, it would take a game on foreign soil to trigger his next move.
The Umbro Cup was held in 1995 in preparation for Euro 96, world champions Brazil joined England, Sweden and Japan in the friendly competition. Brazil would win all three games, but the most significant of those wins was the 3-1 victory against England. Donning the Seleção’s iconic number 10, Juninho opened the scoring with an excellent free-kick. He then slipped a through ball for another starlet, Ronaldo, to make it 2-1. Middlesbrough player-manager, Bryan Robson, was acting as assistant manager to England’s Terry Venables and realized he had to bring the Brazilian to Teesside.
He was unveiled to a roar of delight; fans cheering him on as he arrived on a private jet before thousands awaited Juninho at the Riverside to welcome and watch him perform his customary keepy-uppies. This was a statement signing, and the Middlesbrough fans jumped on the wave of excitement and anticipation. He was expected to provide the extra spark to their weekly starting XI – and that he did.
On his debut, against Leeds, he made full use of his free role, setting up Jan Åge Fjørtoft for the game’s opener. It took him just 11 minutes to rack up his first assist. Of equal importance to the fans was his willingness to get stuck in; the cliché being that star Brazilian are not used to being tackled hard. But Juninho was able to deal with the vaunted physicality of the Premier League.
Juninho was efficient and tricky, but well-grounded and, as a result, adored by the fans. Once his family moved in with him, he was able to settle into a new environment and culture. His standing amongst the fans has helped to add to his cult figure status: here was a man well-loved by his people.
As his adaptation off the field went along, Middlesbrough were able to finish 12th in the league. This would have appeared to be a solid platform for progress, and Robson would have thought the same. He added Brazilian midfielder Emerson and a star striker in Fabrizio Ravanelli. However, as it turned out, basing the side’s creativity around one player had the opposite effect and it only hastened the regression.
In the 1996/97 season, they would lose both League Cup and FA Cup finals and suffer relegation shortly after, not helped by being deducted three points on account of having half their squad ruled out of a game due to flu; the enduring feature of a most bizarre campaign. Ravanelli would score three on his debut but eventually alienated his dressing room with his lackadaisical attitude. Juninho, at the same time, wasn’t suited to the system Boro played. He was an attacking midfielder who thrived between the lines; not a forward who could play behind or hold the ball up.
Eventually, Robson would shift to a formation that brought the best out of Juninho, but the counter effect was that all their hopes were pinned on him. In the League Cup final, Martin O’Neill instructed Pontus Kåmark to stay true to his name and mark Juninho, restricting his influence. By cutting them off at the root, they were able to stem the entire side. O’Neill’s team triumphed and, following their impending relegation, the picture of a despondent Juninho became iconic.
Juninho was both the Premier League and Middlesbrough’s Player of the Year for the 1996/97 season. His sublime form, despite his team’s travails, earned him a move to Atlético Madrid, but he was curtailed by injuries throughout his time there. He later returned to Boro, scoring four goals in 24 games, but was shepherded out to Vasco da Gama. He was met by his namesake, Juninho Pernambucano, who would eventually become one of the best strikers of a dead ball. After a loan spell to Flamengo, he would find his way back to Middlesbrough once more.
It was Steve McClaren who sought to bring the mercurial talents of Juninho back to his admiring fans. His injury troubles followed him, however, and it became clear that he would never be able to reclaim the glorious form of the mid-90s. Nevertheless, he was able to contribute to the club’s League Cup victory in 2004 – just reward for a man who had given his all for the club.
Football is great in the way it can be a leveller of cultures. Yorkshire’s adopted son hails from Brazil and yet will be welcomed with open arms, on any occasion, back to the city he once called his own. It has been a long time since Juninho left Boro for the third time, but many fans still gaze back at his days with undiluted awe and nostalgia.
Despite his numerous injuries, he was able to hit heights in the game most would pine for. To be a legend is something special; to have a connection with a city and its fans – Juninho had it all. There are few better achievements than that.
By Rahul Warrier @rahulw_