Friday, 30 March 2012

Back In Time: Middlesbrough 4, Coventry 0, 1996/97

September sunshine. A packed Riverside stadium. Attacking wizardry on the pitch. Surely it seemed too good to believe? It was...


Ah, 1996. It's funny how we can be so selective with the benefit of hindsight. The way Boro fans look back on that year, you'd think it was a year to treasure, one that we would never see again. And in a way, they're right.

The then state-of-the-art Riverside Stadium was full every week, we were playing football we'd never dreamed we'd play, we were signing players that we thought would never come anywhere near Middlesbrough, the club was churning out quality publications like Riverside Red and Riverside Roar, and timeless music - that is to say, the best of Britpop, be it Oasis, Blur or Ocean Colour Scene - was blazing in our headphones and speakers.

Yet the fact is, we only won six league games that year. Was the division between our star players and more workmanlike pros too great to bridge? Were we too reliant on Nigel Pearson at the back? Was it Bryan Robson's largely wrong-headed tactics? Or was there something in the club's Christmas dinner of 1995? Take your pick.

Still, it's undeniable how memorable most of those wins were. And I'll start the "Back In Time" series by taking you back to one of those rare occasions where we lived up to expectations...

Coming off a 4-1 trouncing of West Ham in midweek, we were favourites to turn over Coventry, who had begun the season with just one point in four games. And turn them over we did, in a 4-0 victory that saw all three of our "foreign legion" excel. With no hint of the settling in problems that were to come, Emerson, described back then by The Independent's Scott Barnes as "arguably the most complete player in his position in the country", bossed midfield, while Juninho and Ravanelli got the goals. Of special note are the second and third goals - the kind that we probably took for granted in those days.

When I watch the game today, I notice how the foreign stars inspired our so called "ordinary" players to play above themselves. Watch again how perennial unsung hero Robbie Mustoe links up with Juninho for the second goal, and sets up Ravanelli for the third with a deceptively simple pass. And it does look like his long diagonal pass sets the ball rolling for the fourth goal too. This game was really as much about the unsung heroes as it was the Brazilian - and Italian - magic. On the surface, this was Boro at their best.

What the highlights aren't entirely telling you is that this game was also indicative of Boro at their worst. Remember the awful Phil Whelan (part of our defence that day)? No? Well, I'm not surprised... he was more than an inadequate replacement for "Big Nige", he just wasn't up to the demands of Premiership football, full stop. And he was part of a three man defence that three times let Coventry in for clear headers. Better finishers would have punished us.

Sure enough, there were other times during the match when we were almost punished - it took an excellent save from the much-maligned Allan Miller to deny John Salako at 2-0 up. Miller also turned a shot onto the post. And what if - what if - at 1-0 up, future Boro man Noel Whelan's "equaliser" had stood? Ravanelli might have been looked even more miserable than he did after his second goal.

Yes, I said it - miserable. Watch Ravanelli celebrate the second goal again, and you'll see he looks almost apathetic. He's just scored his sixth goal of the season, we're 3-0 up, and... this? It's as if he already senses things aren't well and is now playing the "I'm Now A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here" card that so many of our players have played over the years (see: Mark Viduka, Robert Huth). It's enough to vindicate The Sunday Times' David Walsh's point that these foreign stars really only came to Boro to make a buck. Is it any wonder Juninho was believed when he said he wanted to stay, while Ravanelli wasn't?

I don't mean to demean what was undoubtedly a memorable performance, one of breathtaking quality for the most part (at least up front). And it did put us joint top of the Premiership goalscorers chart for a week.

But we made a mistake on building dreams on a display like this, hoping that the virtuosity of our attack would be enough to compensate for a second-tier defence and wrong-headed tactics. Arsenal and Southampton would soon expose our central flaws... as would a relegation at the end of the season.

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