Killing me softly – Juninho and the Middlesbrough Wonder Years.

The latter half of the 1980s was a time of great turmoil for Middlesbrough Football Club. As the 1985-86 season was drawing to a conclusion, financial matters had become so stretched that a loan of £30,000 from the Professional Footballers’ Association was the only way that the club could cover the wages for April. Unsurprisingly, the denouement of that season saw relegation, and Middlesbrough were sent down to the third tier of English football. But worse was to follow.

During the summer, with no games, and reduced revenue, the club was forced to call in the liquidators. Shortly afterwards, with padlocks adorning the rusting gates of the tired and dilapidated Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough Football Club was officially wound up.  The Thatcher years had seen a decimation of industry in the region, with traditional jobs sacrificed on the altar of monetarist dogma and intransigence. Many regions suffered. The north-east suffered more than most, and the fate of the Middlesbrough’s football club seemed to be a microcosm for the travails of the 174,000 or so habitants living on south bank of the Tees.

As if to underscore the fate of the club, any potential rescue attempts to revive it seemed stymied by a new rule introduced by The Football League, requiring capital of £350,000 before registration could be given. At such times, a football club needs a hero, and in Steve Gibson, Middlesbrough found their white knight. Gibson was a local man, born in Park End, in the east of the borough – a birthplace shared with another local hero, Chris Kamara, and no, that’s not “unbelievable.”

Gibson had already shown himself to be a man of action when elected as a Labour councillor at the tender age of twenty-one. He went on to build a multi-million pound transport business called Bulkhaul, and ironically given his political leaning, became the very sort of entrepreneur lauded by the government of the day. Gibson’s great love though was the town’s football team, and he again demonstrated both his commitment to the town and an ability to get things done when he formed a consortium that raised the money to complete registration for the 1986-87 season with less than ten minutes left on the clock. The renaissance saw the club not only draw breath again, but do so in a new guise, now styled as Middlesbrough Football and Athletic Club (1986) Ltd, complete with new crest. If saving the local football club from extinction would be sufficient for many people, Gibson was of an entirely different stripe. He had plans.

The season that many thought would never happen before Gibson saved the day, saw promotion back to the second tier at the first time of asking. Although still playing their games at Ayresome Park, there was a general feeling of momentum about the club. Under the shrewd management of Bruce Rioch, ‘Boro skipped straight through the Second Division after winning the play-offs and just two years after receivership, entered the top flight of English football. It was a step too far, or at least too far too quickly anyway, and relegation followed, albeit by just a single point. The rapid rise through the leagues was almost mirrored by as quick a tumble. In the 1989-90 season ‘Boro escaped successive relegations by a couple of points.

Although Gibson had shown Rioch, the sort of loyalty that would become the hallmark of his dealings with managers over the years, there was still a burning ambition. Relegation from the First Division could hardly have been seen as the fault of the manager, especially given the club’s rapid rise, but the nearness of a return to the third tier saw Gibson dispose of the services of Rioch and install Colin Todd. It was a short tenure, and despite qualifying for the play-offs, Middlesbrough missed out as Notts County moved up to the First Division and in June of 1991, Todd was gone, to be replaced by Lennie Lawrence.

Middlesbrough were becoming the epitome of a yo-yo club, but that was no part of Gibson’s project. Lawrence was given the remit of promotion to what would be the first season of the newly announced Premier League. With a miserly defence at its heart – Lawrence’s team conceded a mere 13 goals at home in 23 games for example – promotion as runners-up to Ipswich Town was secured. The top league was now a new cash-rich environment, and Middlesbrough took their place there.

Across the other side of the country, another ‘local boy made good’ had followed a similar trend, when steel-magnate, Jack Walker purchased Blackburn Rovers. In the season when Middlesbrough failed to win through the play-offs, Blackburn had finished in 19th position, a mere four points from relegation. Walker was a man in a hurry and in October of 1991 he appointed Kenny Dalglish as manager of the club, and the irascible Scot won promotion in his first season, following ‘Boro into the new Premier League after defeating Leicester City in the play-off final and ending a 26-year absence from the top flight. Rovers would kick on from there.

The following year they signed Alan Shearer and paired with Chris Sutton, they became the club’s ‘SAS’ strike force. Fourth in 1992-93, then runners-up in 1993-94, Blackburn delivered the league title to Ewood Park and Jack Walker in the 1994-95 season.

Much nearer to home, Gibson would have seen Sir John Hall perform a similar trick with Newcastle United. Taking over an ailing Third Division club, he appointed Kevin Keegan as manager, and saw promotions follow rapidly as the club invested in players, eventually winning the Division One Championship in 1992-93, and joining the Premier League for its second year. Breaking the world record for a transfer fee, Newcastle took Alan Shearer from Blackburn back to his native north-east and for a few seasons Keegan’s team was lauded as ‘the Entertainers’ as their attacking brand of football lit up many a winter’s evening. They would fall just short of winning the title though, and Manchester United pipped them despite the fact Keegan would have “loved it” if they hadn’t.

There are similar dispiriting footnotes to the exploits of Blackburn and Newcastle however. In the days when money was to become more and more an influence in the success of football clubs in England, the stakes were being raised, and eventually both Blackburn and Newcastle would fall, exhausted, into relegation. To underscore the fact of the increasing domination of money, in the period from the Premier League’s inception for the 1992-93 season, up to 2004-05, of the twelve titles won, Manchester United secured eight of them and Arsenal three. Only Blackburn’s brief time at the summit broke the duopoly. And then to further illustrate the point, even at the end of that period, it was another mega-rich club that increased the winners’ circle to three, when Roman Abramovich’s billions launched Chelsea into the elite.

Back at ‘Boro, it was all too brief a spell in the sunshine as relegation resulted from their Premier League experience. Exposed to the more penetrative attacks in the top echelon, Lawrence’s tight-fisted defence become much more accommodating, conceding 75 goals in 42 league games. The worst record in the league. Although finishing a fairly respectable ninth in Division One the following season, Lawrence’s time was up. Gibson had seen what could be achieved by appointing a charismatic manager, and what  it could ignite for a club with ambition, and the further steps to be gained if stellar players were added to the pot. Gibson became chairman of Middlesbrough Football Club in 1994, a year after assuming 90% ownership of the club and moved to replace Lawrence with the sort of appointment that would address both of those requirements.

Bryan Robson had been a Manchester United player since 1981 and had had built an iconic reputation not only at Old Trafford, but also as England captain. As well as a couple of European trophies, he had won three FA Cups and a League Cup for Manchester United, and capped that off with the title in the first two years of the Premier League. Now in the salad days of his career, Gibson decided Robson was the man he was looking for to lead Middlesbrough.

It allegedly only took two meetings for Gibson to convince the midfielder to up sticks, head back to the north-east and buy into plans of new players and a new stadium. In Robson’s first season in charge, playing more than two dozen times in the dual role of player-manager, the ex-England skipper took the club into the Premier League as champions. At the same time, they waved goodbye to the tired old home of Ayresome Park, and moved into their new stadium – The Cellnet, later to become The Riverside.

Over in Brazil, a world away from the industrial north-east of England, a young player that few in this country had heard of, had just been named as the Brazilian Young Player of the Year. Osvaldo Giroldo Júnior, or Juninho as he was known, was 22 years old, and plying his trade with São Paulo FC. He had built a reputation as one of his country’s brightest prospects having landed the Copa Libertadores and the Intercontinental Cup for his club, defeating AC Milan.

In 1995, the practise run for England hosting the Euro 96 championships was played out under the guise of the Umbro Cup. Although primarily a test of organisation and logistics, it also offered a look at  the next generation of star players, as managers brought forward promising youngsters. One such player who, to many eyes, stole the show, was Juninho. Although playing in the famous Brazilian number ten shirt that seemed too big for his slender 5’ 5” frame, he shone as the playmaker of the team, particularly excelling in the game against England, scoring with a free-kick and setting up a goal for Edmundo with an exquisite pass. The performance did not escape the notice of Gibson and Robson.

The boy was hot property and many of Europe’s top clubs were rumoured to be interested in his signature. It was therefore a major surprise when the announcement came in October 1995, with the club embarking on Robson’s first season in the top league, that Juninho had signed for Middlesbrough in a deal worth £4.75million. Gibson’s power of persuasion in bringing Robson to the club was reaping dividends as the reputation of the England stalwart was apparently a key factor in landing the Brazilian.

How did the club persuade the player who had the choice of far more exotic locations than the industrial decay of England’s north-east to choose Middlesbrough? Juninho would explain that, “I could have joined other clubs but Middlesbrough were the ones who made a special effort to talk to me about the project. Bryan Robson and Keith Lamb came to Brazil, not to convince me to come to Middlesbrough but to show me what they wanted the club to become. Once I saw that, I trusted in them. In that period, people said ‘why are you going to Middlesbrough, try Arsenal, try other clubs.’ I said no because I liked the project at Middlesbrough and I liked the people involved in that and that’s why I think the fans felt that from the beginning, that’s why we have the relationship.” The infectious enthusiasm had delivered. Club chief executive, Keith Lamb, clearly believed they had landed a coup. “It is a measure of Middlesbrough’s ambition that we have signed the most sought-after player in the world,” he proclaimed. Adding, ”and we have beaten all the top Premiership clubs and several big European clubs to his signature.”

Chemicals had been one of the bedrock industries in the region, with the massive ICI organisation employing many of the town’s population. In 1995, though, the organisation fragmented, with many of those jobs being lost. Out on the football pitch, there was a new chemistry being blended, and Juninho would be the catalyst.

‘The Little Fella,’ as he quickly became known as, was just one of the big-name signings at the club though. England international Nick Barmby was also brought in, signing from Spurs for a club record £5.75million. Robson’s team surfed a wave of optimism, hitting the top four by the end of October 1995, holding out the prospect of bringing the undreamt attraction of European competition to Teeside. On 4th November, the boy from Brazil made his debut in a 1-1 home draw against Leeds United, setting up the home goal for Jan Åge Fjørtoft.

At this stage of the game’s development, the introduction of foreign players was still a relatively new phenomenon, and for many fans there was the belief that although such players may bring added flair, very few would cut in those eponymous ‘cold nights in Middlesbrough.’ Juninho would prove the first point, and belie the second in his debut game. As well as the pass to set up Fjørtoft’s goal, a neat nutmeg on Carlton Palmer had the fans licking their lips in anticipation of things to come. Later in the game, Juninho would also show no fear as he hurled himself into an agricultural challenge on Tony Yeboah, earning himself a yellow card. The muscular Leeds striker was nearly as broad as Juninho was tall. The Little Fella had a big heart..

For the remainder of that season, although their league form flattened out as injuries bit into a fairly light squad, Juninho delivered a series of outstanding performances. Despite only netting a couple of goals himself, his role as the fulcrum of the team was pivotal as he controlled games, setting up chances for team-mates. Although operating from a playmaker position, it was the committed sort of performances often the preserve of much less expressively talented players, that also meant so much to the watching ‘Boro fans, and earned him a place in their affections. The club ended the season in a respectable mid-table position, but the blue touch paper of hope had been lit amongst the ‘Boro fans and Juninho was the torchbearer that set it ablaze.

Robson himself played the entire league programme for the club, before hanging up his boots at the end of it. For a promoted club, twelfth was an entirely reasonable finish, but it quickly became clear that if further progress was to be made, a lack of goals – Middlesbrough finished with only 35 in the league, averaging less than a goal per game, a record only slightly better than the four bottom clubs in the league – would need to be addressed.

In 1996, Fabrizio Ravenelli was secured in a major signing from Juventus. Emerson and Branco also landed at The Riverside, although the latter was merely passing through, playing only nine league games there before moving on. Middlesbrough were now very much seen as a club on the rise; upwardly mobile and on track for glory. Glamour signings, a new stadium and a high-profile manager all pointed in the right direction, but the star of the show remained the diminutive Juninho. They were a club of the day, but the problem was, as Blackburn and a Newcastle would discover, that days don’t last for ever.

The 1996-97 season promised so much, and a thrilling opening day 3-3 draw at home to Liverpool, with Ravenelli netting a hat-trick on debut, was a bright start. In the next couple of home games, they rattled in four goals on each occasion and victory at Everton put them into fourth place in the league. Their games would remain a source of goals throughout the season with well over a hundred occurring in their thirty-eight league games. For a club short on goals the previous season, the situation was addressed with aplomb. They added a further 50% to their tally of the previous season, scoring 51 times – a remarkable record given their eventual league position – with only clubs in the top six netting more. At the centre of it all, Juninho was the mercurial magician in the middle of the pitch, and would score 13 goals through the season.

As autumn turned to winter though, Middlesbrough’s drive seemed to go into hibernation. An injury to teak-tough defender and leader of the back-line, Nigel Pearson led to a loss of solidity that was to cost dear. Juninho had scored four times in the first half dozen games, with a 1-0 reverse at Chelsea being their only defeat. But a 2-1 home victory against Everton in mid-September in front of nearly 40,000 fans at the Cellnet, with Juninho adding the winning goal, was the herald of a calamitous change in fortunes.

They went on a disastrous run of a dozen games without a win, finally breaking the drought  against Everton on Boxing Day. In the intervening period, bookended by those victories over Everton, only draws against Sunderland, Wimbledon, Manchester United – a thrilling encounter – and Leeds United garnered any points.

Their form had seen them slump to the relegation zone, and one particular event was to cause a massive problem for the club. A week or so before Christmas, following a 5-1 hammering by Liverpool, Middlesbrough were due to play a league game at Blackburn. Due to injuries and illness at the club, Robson declared that he was unable to field a team and arbitrarily postponed the game.

Rovers were then in the hands of perennial caretaker manager Tony Parkes. The club stalwart related that the first he had heard of Robson’s decision was when a player contacted him after seeing the news on television. “It was just unbelievable. I’d never heard of anything like that happening in football,” he related. “I phoned the Premier League. They didn’t believe me. They said they’ll have to come, they’ll bring the youth team. That was the first the Premier League had heard of it, too.” Robson didn’t send his youth team. Although, as things transpired, it would have been much better if he had.

Faced with a situation unprecedented in modern times, the Premier League decided to dock the club three points for failing to fulfil a league fixture. Already at the foot of the table, the decision left Middlesbrough seven points adrift of the safety margin, with the club in seventeenth position also having a game in hand.

The talent among the squad though suggested it should only be a temporary aberration, and now with the run of defeats broken, things would surely pick up again. As the year turned, a further three successive defeats to Coventry, Arsenal and Southampton, in which they conceded six times without scoring, suggested the victory at Everton had not been the hoped-for turning-point.

Harsh reality became a cloying bog from which the club seemed unable to break free and although they still earned some creditable results, they seemed unable to shake free from the lower reaches of the league. Despite efforts from the club to have the points reinstated, the deduction remained in place and, in the final analysis, would be the difference between survival and relegation.

In contrast to their league form, performances in both cup competitions saw Middlesbrough reach the final in both the FA and League Cup, although they would lose both, the former to Chelsea and the latter to Leicester City after a replay. The club had never won a major trophy in its history and 1997 would see them come close to breaking that duck on two occasions, before heart-breaking defeats, but worse was to follow.

A run of improved form, with Juninho to the fore saw Middlesbrough give themselves a real chance of avoiding the drop. A run of six games through March and into April brought four wins and a couple of draws, before two defeats stalled the momentum. On the last day of the season, they faced Leeds United needing a win to survive. Despite Juninho scoring, the game ended in a 1-1 draw and Middlesbrough were relegated.

The little Brazilian, who had run himself into the ground in vain pursuit of his team’s salvation sat on the pitch and cried. It would spell the end of a couple of years in which a dream had been born and flourished before falling apart. The terrible irony was that if the club had played out their fixture against Blackburn, and evenhanded they lost heavily, the points deduction would not have occurred, the club would have survived and who knows what would have occurred the following season. Would Ravenelli have stayed? Maybe not. Would Juninho? That seems much more likely. How impressive had the young Brazilian been in that season? Suffice to say that he finished as runner-up in the FWA Footballer of the Year poll behind Gianfranco Zola. An incredible achievement for a player at a relegated club.

Years later, he would give an interview to a local newspaper in the town. For the fans, it’s significant that he reflects, “My best moment was the 1996-97 season. We got to two cup finals in the same year and got relegated. But if you ask supporters I think they will say it was the best season ever.” Days of excitement and hope that had flourished were the cherished memory.

Reflecting aspirations of both club and fans, Juninho went on to say, “My dream with Middlesbrough was to play in Europe and to help Middlesbrough reach a better stage. In that time it was a very low point.” Relegation meant the inevitable exodus of star players and although there was talk of Juninho staying with the club, there was a World Cup on the horizon and ambitions to get into the Seleção were unlikely to be served by playing in the second flight of English football. A move to Atletico Madrid brought £13million into the club’s coffers, but the fans would have foregone that to keep The Little Fella at the club.

Following relegation, and without Juninho, Robson returned the club back to the Premier League at the first attempt but the magic had now passed and a few years later, the manager would depart to be replaced by Steve McClaren. In 1999, the town’s favourite Brazilian returned to The Riverside for a brief loan spell, before rejoining permanently, for a two-year spell in 2002. In his final season, he helped the club win the League Cup in 2004. It was Middlesbrough’s first major honour, and entirely fitting that the man who fired the dreams of the club should be part of it.

A few years later, Juninho was voted Middlesbrough’s greatest ever player. For younger readers, that may not seem so much of an accolade, but when you consider he topped legends the likes of Wilf Mannion and Brian Clough, it reflects a great warmth and respect. Why do fans take certain players to their heart? It’s something that goes above and beyond talent and ability. It even surpasses those games where a player gives his all for the cause. If it can be summed up in a single word, perhaps it’s this. Perhaps it’s because they ‘care.’ Not just about the game; not just about the club; not just about the fans. It’s all of that and more. They belong.

There’s a story that that I’ve seen mentioned a few times whilst researching this article about how after training, Juninho would often join in with children playing football in his local area. Whether true or apocryphal, strangely, is not the point. It’s the sort of thing people would believe could be true. Juninho had become one of them. He belonged.

Does the player feel the same way? In that same interview, he summed up the emotion of that day at Elland Road. “I cried (on the pitch at Leeds) because I was very emotional about the club. I saw all of the people working to make Middlesbrough a better club and I felt all of that in that moment. Even now I remember this moment. It was very sad for us.” It was the day that Middlesbrough fans saw their dream die, but the exploits, and tears of Osvaldo Giroldo Júnior made the killing so soft.

(This All Blue Days article was originally produced for ‘The Football Pink’ magazine).

 

 

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