Boro’s bonkers sea­son

BACK-BITING AND INFIGHTING TRAIN­ING AT A PRISON TWO CUP FI­NALS & ONE REL­E­GA­TION

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS -

The inside line on the Smog­gies’ crazy 1996-97, two decades on – fea­tur­ing flair, flu and fisticuffs

M id­dles­brough sup­port­ers headed down south to Wem­b­ley Sta­dium in their thou­sands, with hope in their hearts – and anger, too. It would be the Smog­gies’ first (and, to date, only) FA Cup fi­nal, yet their joy was laced with pain, their eu­pho­ria tem­pered by rel­e­ga­tion from the Premier League. The Boro fans ar­rived at the sym­bolic home of English foot­ball to protest, find­ing them­selves at war with of­fi­cial­dom and the FA suits they blamed for their club’s demise.

Lit­tle did they know, Boro’s play­ers were at war among them­selves, un­will­ing to go down with­out a fight. At least, that may have been the case off the field. On it, Roberto Di Mat­teo scored for Chelsea af­ter 43 sec­onds. The fi­nal was over as soon as it had be­gun.

But what FFT can re­veal for the first time is the full story be­hind Boro’s calami­tous sea­son, which ended in fisticuffs be­tween team-mates even be­fore ref­eree Stephen Lodge whis­tled to get the 1997 fi­nal un­der­way.

It was back at the team ho­tel where, ac­cord­ing to Neil Cox, Fabrizio Ra­vanelli took ex­cep­tion to an in­ter­view that the de­fender had given to the Daily Star, sug­gest­ing the iconic Ital­ian striker should be left out by man­ager Bryan Robson in favour of Mikkel Beck.

“I did an in­ter­view on the pre-match press day as a favour to a mate and I left Rav out of the start­ing XI be­cause, like me, he was strug­gling to be fit and we couldn’t af­ford to gam­ble,” Cox says. “On the Satur­day, it was all over the back page: ‘Cox – Rav should miss out’. So while we were hav­ing the pho­tos taken for the suits and sun­glasses, he de­cided to spit and throw a punch. I dived in, fists flying. I wasn’t slag­ging him off. I was right. That’s why it got nasty. We had a scuf­fle.”

Tem­pers flared as play­ers were about to board the team bus, where co­me­dian Stan Board­man was pre­par­ing for the tough­est gig of his life.

“It turned into the most aw­ful fi­nal prepa­ra­tion for the big­gest game of most of our lives,” mid­fielder Rob­bie Mus­toe re­calls to FFT. “In the team pho­to­graph, you had Ra­vanelli ba­si­cally try­ing to reach across play­ers to have a fight with Neil. There was so much crap – even on the way to the game, Rav was shout­ing at Neil at the back of the bus. There were play­ers sat there who weren’t in­volved in the game and had been drink­ing the night be­fore, and Robson thought it would be good to have Stan telling some jokes. It smacked of un­pro­fes­sion­al­ism.”

Boro were their own worst en­e­mies, says Mus­toe’s team-mate, Craig Hignett. “Back-biting, bitch­ing, peo­ple want­ing to have a fight, and then to go and play the big­gest game of our lives – we didn’t give our­selves a chance,” Hignett grum­bles. “As a boy I had dreamed about play­ing in an FA Cup fi­nal at Wem­b­ley, but be­hind-the-scenes chaos meant it was just sur­real. It def­i­nitely con­trib­uted to that goal.”

There was anger in the stands as well. Some 30,000 Boro fans vented their col­lec­tive spleen in the di­rec­tion of FA chief ex­ec­u­tive Gra­ham Kelly as he led the royal en­tourage to meet the play­ers. The Duchess of Kent found her­self in the fir­ing line amid a protest at the three-point penalty im­posed on Boro for fail­ing to ful­fil a fix­ture in De­cem­ber, which had led to rel­e­ga­tion in the league sea­son’s fi­nale the pre­vi­ous week­end. “It was a dif­fi­cult day at the end of a dif­fi­cult sea­son,” says Gra­ham Fordy, club sec­re­tary at the time. “You can see why fans wanted to vent their anger at those in author­ity that they felt were re­spon­si­ble.”

All this ag­gro con­trasted sharply with the start of Boro’s sea­son and the buzz cre­ated by Ra­vanelli’s ar­rival, a few months af­ter ‘The White Feather’ had scored in Ju­ven­tus’ Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal win.

Ra­vanelli, his salt and pep­per hair be­ly­ing his 27 years, had signed for £7 mil­lion on a four-year deal ini­tially worth £42,000 per week, and he marked his de­but with a River­side hat-trick in a 3-3 draw with Liver­pool – though Boro could’ve done with more than one home dress­ing room.

“It was like get­ting Messi or Ron­aldo,” Hignett says, “but half of the squad hated him and the other half loved him. He worked hard and he was one of the best fin­ish­ers I’d seen, but as a man he rubbed peo­ple up the wrong way. He was self­ish in ev­ery­thing he did.”

Eric Pay­lor, who cov­ered Boro for the lo­cal Evening Gazette, tells FFT he “elec­tri­fied” Teesside: “Rav was larger than life. There’d never been any­one like him, but he thought he was above the club.”

“IF I HAD KNOWN THERE WAS ANY CHANCE OF A POINTS PENALTY FOR NOT PLAY­ING, I’D HAVE FIELDED THE YOUTH-TEAM LADS AND THE LAUN­DRY LADIES THAT DAY"

Pay­lor con­tin­ues: “Steve Gib­son [Mid­dles­brough’s owner] splashed out on him, Emer­son and Jun­inho to tell the Premier League, ‘We’re on the march.’ It was his dream to res­ur­rect the glory days of the Jack Charl­ton era in the ’70s. It didn’t work, as you had two Boro teams on the pitch at the same time: three world-class stars and the other eight.”

Ra­vanelli quickly be­came dis­en­chanted, judg­ing by team-mate Jan Aage Fjortoft’s rec­ol­lec­tions of a team meet­ing in Novem­ber ahead of Boro’s visit to As­ton Villa, with the Ital­ian striker be­ing ac­com­pa­nied by agent Gianni Pal­a­dini, act­ing as trans­la­tor. “Right in the mid­dle of the meet­ing Rav had a rant, loudly and in Ital­ian, about want­ing to leave,” says Fjortoft. “I couldn’t stop laugh­ing. At the end, Bryan said, ‘OK, Rav?’ And Pal­a­dini said, ‘Yes, it’s OK.’ You could not make it up.”

Mid­dles­brough lost 1-0 at Villa Park as a cam­paign that be­gan brightly ca­reered down­hill. A 5-1 thump­ing away at Liver­pool stretched a win­less league run to 12 games. And things would only get worse.

While morale sank and in­juries took their toll, a virus swept through the camp. This, com­bined with sus­pen­sions, meant Robson was with­out 23 play­ers on the eve of a pre-christ­mas game at Black­burn.

Pay­lor was the first per­son out­side the club to learn all was not well. The jour­nal­ist re­calls: “I walked into Robbo’s of­fice at the River­side and he said, ‘Don’t ask what the team is, as I haven’t got one.’”

Chief ex­ec­u­tive Keith Lamb sum­moned Robson, club doc­tor Lau­rie Dunn and physio Bob Ward to his of­fice to dis­cuss the sever­ity of the cri­sis. Lamb also called the Premier League for guid­ance, and was warned un­equiv­o­cally that there were clear rules against ar­bi­trary post­pone­ments; if Boro called off the game, it would be at their peril. They made the big­gest gam­ble in Premier League his­tory – and lost.

“I was re­spon­si­ble for can­celling the match,” Lamb tells FFT. “I am con­vinced we did ev­ery­thing prop­erly. We were ‘in­vited’ to post­pone it, but there was a U-turn in the cor­ri­dors of power that re­bounded on us.” Even now, Lamb in­sists Boro were “harshly treated”.

The club mis­cal­cu­lated, think­ing they’d es­cape with just a fi­nan­cial penalty. A month later, de­spite med­i­cal ev­i­dence back­ing their case, Mid­dles­brough were fined £50,000 and – cru­cially – de­ducted three points, af­ter an in­de­pen­dent tri­bunal. The pun­ish­ment left them four points adrift at the bot­tom of the ta­ble. It was up­held de­spite Gib­son de­ploy­ing for­mi­da­ble bar­ris­ter Ge­orge Car­man to ar­gue Boro’s case at an FA ap­peal. Car­man, who once suc­cess­fully de­fended co­me­dian Ken Dodd on tax eva­sion charges, suf­fered a rare de­feat.

“The pun­ish­ment was an ab­so­lute joke,” Bryan Robson ex­plains to FFT. “Three more play­ers had dropped out on the Fri­day, so we were dec­i­mated. But if I’d have known there was any chance of a points de­duc­tion, I’d have fielded YTS lads and the laun­dry ladies.

“We just didn’t have enough play­ers. I was out in­jured, and had to play away at Ar­se­nal a week later. That made me bail out for good, as I couldn’t move for three days af­ter.” The New Year’s Day match was Robson’s last, com­ing 10 days be­fore his 40th birth­day.

Mean­while, Gib­son was apoplep­tic, lament­ing: “The prob­lem lay with the peo­ple at the Premier League. Many ques­tions were never an­swered and no one came out with any credit. We weren’t treated fairly. It was easy for peo­ple to feel bit­ter and re­sent­ful.”

Not ev­ery­one thought that it was the au­thor­i­ties who were at fault. “I don’t mind say­ing it was a bad, re­gret­table de­ci­sion from the club and man­ager,” Mus­toe tells FFT. “I’m very bit­ter. It’s a rel­e­ga­tion I will not take – it had noth­ing to do with my team or me. We could have put a team out. It was wrong. The sit­u­a­tion was man­aged badly.”

Af­ter­wards, Boro bumped along at the bot­tom of the Premier League but raised their game for the knock­out com­pe­ti­tions. They reached the League Cup fi­nal, where Ra­vanelli’s ex­tra-time goal put them on course for a first ma­jor hon­our, be­fore Emile Heskey bun­dled in a late Le­ices­ter equaliser. Boro had do it all again in a re­play at Hills­bor­ough.

Ra­vanelli held Robson re­spon­si­ble for the fail­ure at Wem­b­ley, cit­ing his re­fusal to make any changes in 120 min­utes. If he pos­si­bly didn’t rate Robson, he cer­tainly didn’t rate his fel­low for­ward Beck.

“He al­ways said he didn’t want to play with him,” Fjortoft ex­plains. “Once, he said in bro­ken English: ‘Jan, I want you play. For me, Mikkel Beck – Serie B’. The prob­lem was that Mikkel was lis­ten­ing in.”

Back in Italy, Ra­vanelli also showed he had a neat turn of phrase in a damn­ing in­dict­ment of Boro’s train­ing ‘fa­cil­i­ties’. “They have a Fer­rari but they don’t have a garage,” scoffed the striker, fed up of be­ing tax­ied around Teesside in what Mus­toe de­scribes as a “crappy old beat-up bus” to prac­tise at pub­lic parks and Kirklev­ing­ton Grange Prison. “The prison was OK as the play­ing sur­faces were good,” Mus­toe adds.

“If there was lots of rain then we prac­tised on ‘The Av­enue of Trees’. That wasn’t even a park – just a strip of land be­tween some big trees which sucked up wa­ter – so it was a de­cent place to train.”

Mean­while, Brazil­ian mid­fielder Emer­son – de­scribed by Pay­lor as “one of the great­est play­ers I had seen in a Boro shirt” fol­low­ing his early-sea­son dis­plays – was “hav­ing his head turned” by re­ports of a Barcelona move, be­fore get­ting rest­less and go­ing AWOL.

“Emer­son al­ways seemed to have a ticket back to Brazil,” Fjortoft says. The Nor­we­gian him­self left mid-sea­son, as did a young Nicky Barmby and Branco who, Fjortoft adds, “was six ki­los over­weight when he first ar­rived and 10 ki­los over­weight when he left.”

Games came thick and fast due to Boro’s cup ex­ploits, which in­cluded a topsy-turvy semi-fi­nal at Old Traf­ford against third-tier Ch­ester­field, cap­tained by Sean Dy­che. The Tele­graph called the match “one of the finest FA Cup ties in the com­pe­ti­tion’s 125-year his­tory”.

“My abid­ing mem­ory,” says physio Bob Ward, “is look­ing to my left to see [re­serves coach] Gor­don Mcqueen shak­ing so much, he couldn’t put a cig­a­rette in his mouth. I killed my­self laugh­ing, but it was fright­en­ing.”

A gru­elling con­test ended 3-3 af­ter ex­tra time – not ideal prepa­ra­tion for a League Cup fi­nal re­play against Le­ices­ter just three days later. That, too, went to ex­tra time, in which Steve Clar­idge se­cured vic­tory for the Foxes. “It was a ma­jor dis­ap­point­ment los­ing the fi­nals – es­pe­cially the one against Le­ices­ter, be­cause we were the bet­ter team and de­served to win,” Robson sighs. “The boys were dev­as­tated. We had a really good team, but I needed four or five more squad play­ers as we just weren’t strong enough to cope with the amount of cup games.”

Ch­ester­field were even­tu­ally van­quished, again in a re­play, again at Hills­bor­ough, but Boro faced a fix­ture pile-up ahead of the FA Cup fi­nal. They played four league games in nine days – in­clud­ing the re-ar­ranged trip to Black­burn. The long-awaited match ended 0-0.

The league sea­son cul­mi­nated in a 1-1 draw at Leeds that con­demned Robson’s charges to the drop by just two points. Jun­inho was crest­fallen – the Brazil­ian would later claim, “It was the worst day of my ca­reer.”

Boro’s cause was hin­dered by Ra­vanelli in­jur­ing his ham­string in a 3-3 draw at Man United two weeks be­fore the FA Cup fi­nal. “He dis­ap­peared to Italy for treat­ment,” says Ward. “I was be­mused. We should’ve been stricter. We treated him 12-15 hours a day, try­ing to get him ready for the fi­nal, but he wouldn’t let us fit­ness-test him and he came off early. It was rub­bish.” Ra­vanelli traipsed off af­ter 24 min­utes and Chelsea were un­for­giv­ing. Ed­die New­ton fi­nally put Boro out of their mis­ery.

“Af­ter­wards we all felt like we’d fought 15 rounds in a box­ing match,” says de­fender Cur­tis Flem­ing. “Nigel Pear­son said be­fore kick-off: ‘Right, lads, we haven’t had loads of luck this sea­son – this could be our day.’

“Then, 43 sec­onds later, we re­alised that maybe it wasn’t.”

Mid­dles­brough’s Premier League re­turn came on the an­niver­sary of their most mem­o­rable cam­paign, fea­tur­ing stel­lar names, two cup fi­nals and, 20 years ago this month, a very costly can­cel­la­tion...

From top: Hors­ing around with Rav and Hignett; “No Emer­son Burg­ers left, I’m afraid”; three-year-old fan Waqa Me­hdi hands over 18,000 cards in Boro’s ap­peal to the league; “The flight to Rio leaves in two hours, OK?”

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