Monday, 14 March 2011
Teams That Made Us Fall In Love With Football #6: Middlesbrough 1996-97
Kicking off the second week of the series are Middlesbrough 1996-97 – the Latin Smoggies. Welcome to Magic Spongers Dan Clark.
Let me get one thing straight. I am not from the North East. I’m not even from the North. I’m originally from South East London and a Spurs fan by heritage with a sprinkling of Millwall added in for good measure.
I am, however, a fan of the team that used to set the imagination of a dreaming 13-year old on fire. And that team was Bryan Robson’s multi-cultural, swaggering, avant-garde Middlesbrough. It was a side packed with style and panache with stellar names such as Juninho, Ravanelli (the White Feather) and Emerson. Even Nicky Barmby seemed exotic playing among this lot. And they played with style. Ounces of it. On top of that, this was a side under Robson that managed three Wembley finals, albeit losing ones, between 1996 and 1998. The great tragedy was that they were relegated in the 96-97 season after being deducted three points, bringing the curtain down on one of the most colourful chapters in the Teessiders' history.
The coming together of this outrageously talented team was something to admire. And they had goals in them. They were the top-scoring team outside of the top seven with 51 goals and yet they were still relegated. Ravanelli smashed in 16 goals, including memorable hatricks against Derby County and, on the first day of the season, against Liverpool in a pulsating 3-3 draw, while Juninho chipped in with 12 from an attacking midfield role.
Yet this team spoke about much more than just flair and football that was easy on the eye. It represented a watershed moment in the Premier League’s history, epitomising the aspirational quality of the league. It married the industrial with the fantastical. It said if you want to attract big names and play exciting football then it is possible with ambition and desire. It confidently proclaimed that if you want the monotonous to be extraordinary, the parochial to become box office, then this is the league, this is the country, to do it. It set the tone for a series of flamboyant names to grace the top flight. The likes of Okocha, Djorkaeff and Campo at the Reebook, Di Canio and Berkovic at Upton Park and Dugarry at Birmingham.
This Middlesbrough side demonstrated that the smaller teams of this country could deliver imagination and colour. It didn’t matter that a lot of the names were coming to the end of their careers and the medals in the cupboard had come from abroad. No – rather it showed that the Premier League was heading to the top. Serie A at this point was still big dog in Europe, while La Liga was the home of the purist. But there was no doubting that the Premier League was fast becoming the entertainer’s league, where tactic-less, dreamy, end-to-end football was emerging as the norm, rather than the exception.
And it wasn’t just the football on offer. Even the stadium had a modernistic, free flowing feel about it. The Riverside, or Cellnet stadium as it was known back then, opened in 1995, looking like something from the future. Executive boxes, all enclosed, curving roofs and stainless steel vistas aplenty. I was a teenager obsessed with stadiums. I even owned a manual called ‘Britain’s football grounds from above’. I used to get in trouble in lessons for dawdling in the back of my textbooks, scratching out a vague representation of Old Trafford or Wembley. So when The Cellnet arrived, it truly seemed like a glimpse into the future. I got my first taste of the ground in the 07/08 season when the Juande Ramos Tottenham era arrived to a great fanfare of noise and expectation. But by this stage, so many of Britain’s new grounds had taken on the identikit look of the Riverside that there was little charm to the trip. And we could only scrape a one-all draw, setting the tone for a disastrous nine months under the ineffectual Spaniard.
But back to that 96/97 side. Oh, the football they played. The Brazilian samba swagger, the United Nations identity of the team, everything about it felt forward thinking and revolutionary. And they loved goals: they entertained us all with the second highest scoring match of the season, a 6-1 demolition job on Derby County. For the anoraks' sake, if you really want to know the top scoring match that season, well it was Newcastle United against yes, you guessed it, my beloved Spurs in a rampant 7-1 win up at St James’.
Boro also lost a lot of games, it’s true, often heavily as well. But they entertained. And this was an era, don’t forget, when Vinnie Jones could still be found ripping up the turf down at Selhurst Park or Big Dunc Ferguson smashing heads at Goodison. So Middlesbrough’s distinctly Latin feel was a breath of fresh air to a still overwhelmingly nationalistic division. And it’s not to say there weren’t other teams that entertained that year. Middlesbrough’s rivals up the road were banging them in for fun that season while Southampton and Le Tissier were on fire and Benito Carbone’s Sheffield Wednesday weren’t shy of the net either.
While the likes of Ravanelli, Juninho and Emerson lit up Teesside, it’s worthwhile mentioning the workmanlike players that played their part behind the scenes: The Clayton Blackmores and Curtis Flemings. There was a young Mark Schwarzer learning his trade while the long serving Robbie Mustoe provided the a link from the side’s recent anonymous past to its sudden thrust into the spotlight.
This was an era when the arrival of foreign talent set the pulse racing. In today’s game, the foreign export is as common a sight as seeing a two-bit ‘ethnic’ tattoo on a Saturday night in Middlesbrough town centre. Torres to Chelsea for £50 million? Yawn. Dzeko to Man City? A minor pulse on the radar perhaps. But back then, the emergence of the sophisticated foreign footballer was new and genuinely caused palpitation. It also helped Middlesbrough’s cause that they were backed by an ambitious and wealthy owner in Steve Gibson. The arrival of the Juninhos and Barmbys for around £5m apiece consituted pretty hefty sums of money in the mid-90s Premier League.
But the telling conclusion of this side came in the form of a messy relegation at the end of the 96-97 season. The real tragedy of course, lay in the fact they were relegated on the basis of a technicality. Middlesbrough had failed to field a team against Blackburn at short notice after a flu virus had ripped through the squad. The result? A three-point deduction from the FA, which ultimately sounded the bell for this gifted side. Harsh as it seemed to me as a dreamy 13-year-old, in the cold light of day and the even colder lens of a cynical 27–year-old man reflecting on these events, the FA had no other choice. That a team which had lavished millions on assembling a squad could fail to field a starting 11 was a damning reflection on the true lasting value of the vision projected by Gibson and Robson. It confirmed that the project had shallow foundations and was never built to last.
For Middlesbrough fans, the 96-97 season was the ultimate encapsulation of what it is to be a football lover. The highs and lows, the euphoria of naked ambition and then the sudden, forced removal of your hopes that relegation brings. Throw into the mix two heartbreaking losing Wembley finals in the FA Cup and League Cup and you’ve got a positively schizophrenic season. It would have been interesting to see how this team could have developed without the relegation as it led to losing the crown jewels of Juninho and Ravanelli. But for one season, I fell in love with the dream of how a side could fashion itself with the backing and the vision, and in this one season alone, Middlesbrough’s impact on the Premier League had me hooked.