Big-spending Boro undone by no-show
Middlesbrough currently find themselves staring down the abyss of relegation, their first in twelve years. This season's travails have largely resulted from an inexperienced group of players failing to compete with better funded clubs while their young manager falters. Many in the game see their imminent demise as understandable given the club's debts and a lack of resources.
By contrast, at the end of 1996-97, a big-spending Boro lost their Premier League status after reaching the finals of the two domestic cup competitions. It could have been the best season of the club's history. Instead, it ended in nightmarish disappointment and chaotic farce.
Parallels can be drawn with Boro's current malaise. The chairman, as now, was Steve Gibson. The manager was a former England captain in his third season at the helm of the club - his first job after quitting as a player. Yet the parameters were very different. This was still a time when a smaller club could spend cash and cause serious ripples. Blackburn, in winning the Premiership in 1994-95 and Newcastle, pipped to the post by United the following year, had been proof of that.
Steve Gibson, like Jack Walker and Sir John Hall, had the cash to support such an effort and, just as they had done, chose a leading player of the 1980s to be his manager. Bryan Robson had been Manchester United's godhead right up until his last couple of seasons at Old Trafford. When he hung his boots in 1994, Gibson swiftly offered him the manager's job at Middlesbrough.
The club was blessed with healthy support but no history of success. In 1986 the club had needed to be reformed after being locked out of their Ayresome Park ground. Gibson, who made his fortune in chemical haulage, had played a leading role in that rescue and took over almost total control in 1993. Robson was offered the carrot of being able to play in a new stadium at the end of his first season; the gleaming new Riverside.
Promotion, with Robson playing in midfield, was secured at first tilt. The following summer saw the first of a series of big signings in Nick Barmby, the England international arriving from Tottenham for a hefty £5.25m. Juninho, at a time when Brazilians in England were as rare as hen's teeth, joined in October 1995 for £4.75m, a keynote of the club's ambition.
Robson, still a considerable name in the game, was then given almost carte blanche to buy who he wanted the following summer. In landing Fabrizio Ravanelli, an Italian striker who had scored in the recent Champions League Final for Juventus, Robson shocked the footballing world. Ravanelli, of prematurely greying hair and all-action style - on a good day - was all too happy to accept a massive wage packet for his move to Teesside. He would be accompanied by Emerson, a £4m Brazilian midfielder with a Rick James haircut signed from FC Porto.
Boro had finished 12th the previous year. Improvement on that seemed highly likely. Perhaps Robson could claim the first trophy in the club's history? A first day 3-3 draw with Liverpool had the town believing, especially after three beautifully taken strikes by Ravanelli who, judging by his wild celebrations, seemed to have taken the fans to his heart.
Yet, as so often happens when a team of expensive emigres are grafted on to a settled team, Robson's team began to stall. A promising August ended in a 4-0 defeat at Southampton. Rot was setting in and a series of injuries taking their toll. While Juninho continued to shine, Emerson and Ravanelli began to look disinterested. Come Christmas, Boro had gone 13 games without a win. A 5-1 defeat to Liverpool made December 21's game with Blackburn a vital relegation six-pointer.
Juninho was injured, as were several other players. Then a flu virus took hold at the training ground. Boro, panicking, faxed the Premier League to tell them of their problems, but neglected to tell Blackburn. They claimed twenty-three players were either ill, injured or suspended and only seven were available to play.
Chief executive Keith Lamb and Robson took a unilateral decision to not show up that was greeted with derision and anger by much of the rest of the league. Thus began a legal farrago that dominated the headlines for much of the season. Failure to fulfil the fixture, by the terms of Rule 19 of the League's statue, resulted in a three-point deduction meted out to Boro, who swiftly mounted an appeal, calling in the services of crack QC George Carman to argue their case.
Robbie Mustoe had been at the club since 1990 and seen it grow from a Second Division club to one of European football's biggest spenders. He says it was "a disaster to be in and around the relegation zone"; while the midfielder "thinks" he was injured for the Blackburn game, saying "I couldn't have played in that game."
Indeed, he missed the next match, a 4-2 win over Everton that bought valuable space and in which Juninho scored twice. Yet two league defeats followed and the club's position began to look parlous. There were other distractions too. A run in the League Cup had taken them to the semi-final. Two days after Liverpool were defeated in the quarter-final, another defeat to Southampton sent Boro rock-bottom of the league.
Stockport, then of Division 2, were beaten in a two-legged semi. Boro were at Wembley for the very first time. The FA Cup meanwhile, represented another welcome relief from those problems associated with the Blackburn no-show. A series of lower league opponents, with only Derby in the same division, were despatched before Chesterfield, of the third tier and in uncharted territory, awaited in the semi-final.
In the league meanwhile, Mustoe and his team-mates found themselves rock-bottom until March 19 when, ironically, Blackburn were defeated. By now, however, Boro were both victims of success in the cup and failure in the league. The games were coming in thick and fast for the squad. Star names had been bolted on to a squad of home-grown players, most of whom had been with the club before Robson arrived.
A win over Chelsea and a draw with Nottingham Forest were followed by a felling blow. March 26 was the day the club and Carman found that their appeal had been thrown out after a five-hour hearing. Four successive league wins and a draw were undone. The three points being returned would have lifted the club to 14th, four points clear of the relegation zone. Sympathy was in short supply. Derby manager Jim Smith spoke for many when he said: "If a team in the Sunday morning league had acted like that, they would have been thrown out."
Mustoe says the effects of the appeal's defeat were devastating: "We were astonished. We thought we were OK to do what we did and obviously we weren't. It was just an awful period after doing so well in the cups."
The club's next match was a League Cup Final with Martin O'Neill's Leicester. Boro's Wembley bow resulted in extra time and the heartbreak of a late Emile Heskey equaliser. It added a replay, a game that tiring Middlesbrough could do without. Before that came the FA Cup semi with Chesterfield, a 3-3 rollercoaster of a game. Boro, down to ten men from 37 minutes after the dismissal of Vladimir Kinder, were again denied in the last minute of extra time by a late equaliser.
Four days on, the replay with Leicester took place at Hillsborough. Extra-time again followed. This time, so did defeat, by virtue of a Steve Claridge winner as Boro's visibly knackered players crumpled to the earth. A week later, Chesterfield were finally banished and Wembley awaited once more.
Mustoe remembers the gruelling schedule: "We had an incredible amount of games to play. The last few weeks of the season we were playing Saturday, Monday, Thursday, Sunday, four games in a week. That was very difficult. We didn't have a massive squad of players. It was just too much for us in the end."
The filip of Wembley did little to alter an inexorable slide. The game with Blackburn was eventually replayed, resulting in a 0-0 draw that was of little use to Robson's team. A 1-1 draw on the last day of the league season with Leeds confirmed the end. Mustoe confirms the effects of that December decision: "It did play on the players' minds. It was an incredible season of differing emotions."
The FA Cup Final was over before it began, Chelsea's Roberto Di Matteo scoring after just 43 seconds and though Boro pushed for an equaliser, they showed the rigours of the rollercoaster they had ridden all season. Mustoe, who left the field with an injury in the first-half, said: "The relegation certainly didn't help in the FA Cup Final. The team spirit was in tatters at that point."
Eddie Newton's late Chelsea goal completed the splintering of a season that had promised so much.
Southgate's current malaise barely compares with that soap opera yet he can take heart from Gibson's retention of Robson that summer. Ravanelli was soon gone, Juninho far more reluctantly. Robson was granted the cash to buy Paul Merson and, later in the year, Paul Gascoigne, and his team were back in the Premier League for the 1998-99 season. "Robbo" would eventually outstay his welcome in 2001, after Gibson was forced to call in Terry Venables to arrest another slide.
Mustoe remains friendly with Southgate and calls him "the ideal man for the job", yet is concerned about Boro's future. He sees the likes of Tuncay and Stewart Downing surely being cashed in.
With Gibson not as flush as he was in the mid-1990s, the ability to reinvest seems limited. Mustoe fears for the club's future: "I hope that he (Gibson) can find the money to bring in a couple of key players because they're going to need that. Like a lot of people in Teeside, I'm worried about the future when you see the other clubs who have just disappeared off the face of the earth in football terms.
"My whole family is just very concerned about what might happen. Look at what happened to Charlton Athletic and some of the other teams who have massively struggled."