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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.


  1. Nice read.
    Though every team should turn up for a game, playing the tea lady if you have too, it is worth pointing out that the club acted based on the advise given to them by the FA. It has been proven that Rick Parry lied during the affair. It would have been interesting had they stayed up that year and added a couple of defenders as well as the attacking flair players they bought.

  2. Great knowledgeable blog and nice to see general football fans appreciating other teams who contribute to the game we love appart from the 'top four'

  3. Nicely written, but please please please stop pluralising player names. Sadly there was only one Clayton Blackmore, Curtis Fleming, Juninho or Nick Barmby.

    Leave this affectation to the Chris Kamaras of this world

  4. Nice to see a southerner giving a positive view of Boro and of that season when the southern press were aching for us to fail through jealousy. How dare the Brazilian player of the year join Boro!

    Like you say, it would have been interesting to see what could have happened. There were big names lined up to come in if we stayed up. Ince (still in his prime rather than the old version we got) and Romario were strongly rumoured along with some powerful defensive players. Ince and Emerson, Romario and Ravanelli, and Juninho pulling the strings it could have been very special indeed.

  5. As above, great to read a positive review of that season - at the time, it seemed we were ripe for ridicule and being laughed at. Yet, as you say, it was all about dreaming the dream, and how we dreamed. Sadly, once Boro were promoted again in 1998, Bryan Robson was hugely fearful of further trouble and started playing it safe, eschewing the glamour signings for people who could 'do a job' and leading to crappy, Route One football and the interminable Ricard-Deane strikeforce.

  6. If I live to be a million nobody can convince me that taking 3 points of us so the likes of Coventry and Southampton could stop up was right, balanced or fair.

    Blackburn should have been awarded the match and Boro hit with a million plus fine. West Ham's offence recently was far greater in my eyes but then again, Middlesbrough isn't in London is it?

  7. Brilliant read and a spine tingling account of that historic season. I'm 22 and this season was only my third as a boro fan. I remember the excitement of a matchday, a few cokes in the pub whilst my dad and his mates gulped back the lager, having my face painted and swapping football stickers with kids I didn't know and then making our way to the riverside knowing it was going to be an entertaining afternoon.

    I feel spoilt looking back now as we sit so far down the championship table but i wouldn't change them days for the world. The heartache of relegation and the devastation of cup final defeats does not out way the lasting effect that season had on me as a boro fan and the memories which not many clubs could compete with.

    Up the Boro

  8. typical boro from smoggie in oz

  9. Excellent read.. Sigh. We were robbed.... 3 pts..... Festa's perfectly good goal in the final against Chelsea... And due to the southern press's love in with Zola (half a season?) Juninho came 2nd in the writer's player of the year.... It still hurts.

  10. Dear Peter,

    I am in receipt of your letter dated 27th May 1997. As you may except I am deeply disappointed with it’s content.
    I believe that you have dismissed our request for an independent review on the technical legal strength of you case which is strongly enhanced by the Ouster clause an no consideration has been given to what is just and equitable.
    Given the legal strength of your case I have no alternative other than to accept the penalties imposed upon my Club which constitutes a £50,000.00 fine and the deduction of 3 points.
    This resulted in the playing performance of the Club being artificially place in 19th position against the true merit position of 14th in the premier league. The consequences have been a loss in the ladder system payment of £528,575 and relegation to the First Division with a forecast revenue loss of £7,500,000.

    I have carried out a full investigation of my Clubs involvement in this incident and I have taken all action which I consider appropriate. I am still left with a grave sense of injustice as I am unable to reach any other conclusion than that this incident was most certainly avoidable and that it was not avoided is, I believe, due largely to the action of the officials of the Premier League both on the day and subsequent to it.

    The duty of the care and responsibility which the officials of the Premier League owe to the member clubs was not afforded to my Club and I believe that the facts show your officials to be both incompetent and negligent.
    The basis for this conclusion was presented to you at our meeting on Friday 16th May 1997 and then again in my letter to you dated 21st May 1997 and you have been unable, or unwilling to answer any of the questions I have posed. As a member of the Premier League clearly dissatisfied with the performance of its officials I must demand that you now respond.
    Presently the only injured party is my Football Club is outlined below and I ask you immediately commission an independent enquiry into the actions of your officials and respond in full to the questions which follow our evidence.

  11. 1. Why did Mr Cooke advise that no rule exists for the Board to postpone a game when power exists under rule B2(2)?
    2. Why was Mr Lamb advised the Mr Parry was away from the office when we now know that he was on the premises?
    3. Why did Mr Cooke not advise that there were no cases that could give guidance on what constituted “just cause” especially given the findings of the FA Board of Appeal in 1987 which instructed Mr Graham Kelly to change the “just cause” rule because it is unfair to ask Clubs to decide for themselves what amounts to “just cause” and then punish them if they get it wrong (Doncaster v Chester 16/12/87)?
    4. Why did Mr Cooke not tell Mr Lamb that he had to play the game especially given the Doncaster v Chester 1987 FA Board of Appeal ruling which says that Clubs should always be told to play the game if they enough fit players.
    5. Why did Mr Cooke ask Mr Lamb to send a fax and send medical evidence if he knew that the Club had more than 11 fit players and that the game should be played (Doncaster v Chester 16/12/97)
    6. Why did Mr Cooke not ring Blackburn Rovers and inform them of the postponement as he volunteered?
    7. At what time did Mr Cooke advise Mr Parry of my Clubs problems and what information did Mr Cooke pass to Mr Parry?
    8. Did Mr Parry seek to constitute a Board meeting with Sir John Quentin and if not why not?
    9. Why did neither Mr Parry, Mr Cooke nor Mr Foster at any time either verbally of in writing inform Mr Lamb that the game could not be postponed on the grounds of “just cause” for the reasons given orally and in writing by Mr Lamb to Mr Cooke?


    Approx. Times

    1030 hours: Club Manager Mr. Robson advises Club Chief Executive Mr. Lamb that in addition to a serious injury crisis the situation has been exacerbated by a virus which has disabled 8 members of our playing staff, leaving available only 17 players from a squad of 40. The 17 fit players consist of 3 goal keepers and 5 young players who have never featured in the first team squad.

    1045 hours: Club Doctor Dunn advises Mr. Robson and Mr. Lamb “I am uncertain how many of the 17 fit players will be fit tomorrow due to the virus”

    1100 hours: Mr. Lamb rings the Premier League and asks to speak to Mr. Parry. Mr. Lamb is told that Mr. Parry is away from the office. Mr. Lamb asks to speak to Mr. Foster but is told that Mr. Foster is on holiday. Mr. Lamb eventually speaks to Mr. Cooke and asks for guidance on whether a game can be postponed.

    He is told.

    1. No power for the Premier League Board to postpone a game exists in rules of the Premier League.
    2. The game could be postponed on the grounds of “just cause” but this had to be a decision made by Middlesbrough Football Club.
    3. That Mr. Lamb should list the injured and ill players and confirm this by fax to the Premier League before the postponement is announced.

    1130 hours: Mr. Lamb contacts Mr. Cooke further and invites the Premier League to conduct an independent medical assessment of the playing staff. MR. Cooke declines this offer and asks Mr. Lamb to send medical evidence by post.

    1200 hours: Mr. Lamb drafts the letter containing the detail requested by Mr. Cooke and calls him to confirm that the wording and content is sufficient for the Premier League requirements.

    1250 hours: Mr. Lamb sends the fax requested by Mr. Cooke having carefully considered that the circumstances constitute”just cause”. Mr. Lamb rings Mr. Cooke to inform him of the Clubs decision to postpone the game. Mr. Cooke volunteers to inform Blackburn Rovers and agrees that Mr. Lamb should inform the press at 1300 hours. Mr. Cooke informs Mr. Lamb of the potential breach of Rule B.19.1 after Mr. Cooke had spoken to Mr. Parry. Mr. Lamb tells Mr. Cooke that he is confident that the situation will amount to “just cause”.

    1300 hours: At the weekly pre-match press conference Mr. Lamb and Mr. Robson announce the postponement of the game by Middlesbrough Football Club.

    1430 hours: Mr. Lamb returns to his office, a message awaits that Mr. Foster had rung at approx. 1300 hours. Furthermore Mr. Finn of Blackburn Rovers had rung to express his surprise that he had heard of the postponement through the media. Mr. Foster speaks to Mr. Lamb and advises Mr. Lamb that the Club must accept the consequence of the postponement.

  13. Now call me paranoid if you will but there has been media collusion to keep the truth about this out of the media. A Guardian article as recent as 2009 with that knob head Tony Parks the whole lie was repeated again (http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2009/dec/19/tony-parkes-blackburn-middlesbrough-flu). In the rearranged match it should also be noted that Colin Hendrie upended Juno in the most blatant penalty you could ever wish to see (not for the first time that season, Paul Durkin was either completely incompetent and Boro were unlucky to be on the receiving end of his mistakes or he was an out and out cheat). The other argument about we should have had more points would also not have been the case had we not had the most shocking refereeing all season, I had all the highlights on tape and when I showed them to friends who were neutral they were genuinely shocked. It is interesting to note that Barnsley fans swear they had the same treatment from biased refereeing the next season. I can not say how much it still burns all this time later, Ginola, one of the worst divers in the history of the Premiership got decisions week in and out no matter how blatant his diving where as Juno got kicked up in the air time and again and was left with that all too familiar look of absolute astonishment at the ref ignoring yet another foul/penalty. Juno never went to ground as I can remember, he always thought he could do something with the ball instead of throwing himself on the ground. Maybe we would have done no better anyway but the fact we will never know will haunt me forever.