He was immediately recognisable the moment he stepped out of the players’ tunnel. The shock of silver hair sparkled in the scorching August sun, the loose-fitting shirt sagged below his waist with the collar turned up. Three months earlier he played and scored for Juventus in the Champions League Final against Ajax (the last time the Bianconeri won the trophy). The transfer had sounded like a joke a month or so ago. But there he was in the flesh. Fabrizio Ravanelli, one of the world’s elite strikers, was playing for Middlesbrough Football Club on the opening day of the 1996/97 season against Liverpool.
Also making his day was the Brazilian midfielder Emerson. A two-time Portuguese Champion with Porto, the reigning Portuguese Player of the Year had decided to trade Champions League Football for Teesside. His fellow countryman Juninho had arrived the previous October where Boro fans flocked to Teesside Airport to watch his arrival. If Boro fans were bursting with excitement before kickoff, over the next 90 minutes the decibel levels would blow off the scale as Ravanelli sent everyone into a frenzy scoring a hat-trick in a heart-stopping 3-3 draw.
How had Middlesbrough, a club who had never won a trophy of any significance, been in a position to land global superstars? It all started at a dinner two years earlier.
In 1994 local businessman Steve Gibson had recently been appointed the new chairman of Middlesbrough FC. He had joined the board in the mid-80’s. “Everything, right the way through the club, was rotten,” Gibson remembered. Finances were so bleak that the local news reported that the club had died, but behind the scenes Gibson had brought together a consortium that saved the club from the abyss.
The landscape of English football was evolving rapidly. Gazza’s tears at Italia 90 symbolised a spiritual cleansing of the sins of hooliganism. The creation of the Premier League along with Rupert Murdoch’s Sky was flooding the game with money. After accepting mediocrity for so long Gibson asked a question. Why not us? Why can’t Middlesbrough be one of the clubs that defines this new era?
He set about a creating a revolution. He knew for a revolution to ignite he needed a spark. That spark was Bryan Robson.
Robson wasn’t keen. “I thought, Middlesbrough…I’m not so sure. It didn’t really appeal to me,” he remembered. Instead he found he couldn’t help but be enticed by the infectious ambition of the chairman. At a dinner with their wives, before the first course had been served, Robson reached across the table to shake hands. Gibson then excused himself where he, “screamed the place down with joy.”
As player-manager Robson, who memorably donned a suit-and-tie with shorts combo for the unveiling, got Boro promoted to the Premier League in 1994-95 season where Boro would be playing in the new state-of-the-art Riverside Stadium. Today the Riverside is often viewed as a basic stadium by modern standards, but it’s easy to forget in the 1996 the second youngest stadium in the league was Selhurst Park, built in 1924. Playing at the Riverside in the mid-90’s was truly like playing in the future.
After the exhilarating draw with Liverpool, Boro destroyed West Ham and Coventry. Ravanelli couldn’t stop scoring. Emerson, with his shimmering soul-glo perm, sauntered around the pitch, banging goals in from 25-yards. Boro fans started to dream.
But then of course it all went wrong. In every revolution there is chaos at the beginning. Results started to turn. Ravanelli stopped talking to his teammates and criticized the club to Italian newspapers. Astoundingly Emerson disappeared to Brazil for weeks, his wife calling Teesside a “strange, terrible place.”
Injuries and discontent ravaged the squad as they plummeted to the bottom. Flu broke out through the squad just before Christmas. With 23 players out Boro didn’t turn up for a game at Blackburn. The FA, not impressed with this early example of social distancing, docked the club three points.
While they struggled in the league they embarked on two epic cup runs reaching Wembley twice. On both occasions Boro would suffer heartbreak.
There was one constant throughout this season, and that was the brilliance of Juninho. At times it seemed like the diminutive playmaker was taking on teams on his own. Alex Ferguson called him “The best player I’ve seen in the Premier League this season.” He produced a catalogue of breathtaking performances, but it was not enough. On the final day of the season Boro needed a win away at Leeds. Juninho scored a late goal to make it 1-1 but that would be how the game would finish. At the final whistle at Elland Road eleven exhausted Boro players collapsed to the floor. Juninho, heartbroken, would be the last to rise.
Boro, who had been deducted three points, were relegated by two points. The revolution was over.
If they had stayed up there were rumours that provisional deals had been done with several elite players (Roberto Carlos and Gabriel Batistuta were some of the names reported).
Yer Joking Aren’t Ya? provides the bizarre and gripping story behind this extraordinary season. Featuring interviews with several key squad members, the book brings to life one of the most surreal episodes in Premier League history. It ended in tragedy, but for those who took part – and for the fans who witnessed it – it was a truly unforgettable time. The book is available to purchase here.