Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Back In Time: Manchester United 3, Middlesbrough 3, 1996/97

Si's Insights looks back at a classic game which, unfortunately, had consequences...

Even before this season began, the pluses and minuses of Tony Mowbray's Boro were all too clear to see. Our current squad has some really good individual players, and is capable of playing some sparkling football, but can also let their heads go down too often when the going gets tough.

Lest we forget that in 2010/11, we let a commanding 3-1 lead at home to Swansea turn into a 4-3 defeat, and got hammered home and away by then future champions QPR.

So are you surprised about the way the current season's going? Really?

In truth, this is nothing new with Boro, as my "classic game" of the week illustrated almost fifteen years ago.

Forget the 1-0 win over Chelsea in March 1997, magnificent though it was - this was the game that epitomized 1996/97 in a nutshell. It had it all - goals, attacking wizardry, spirit, good defending, bad defending, crazy weather... and even a little bit of controversy.

One thing about "big" teams, and Manchester United are no different, of course, is that they often want to referee games themselves as well as play. But a lack of fussiness from the officials, coupled with a distinct lack of pressure and that little bit extra emotional investment on the day, saw us play above ourselves in a manner no sane Boro fan would have dreamed of.

This was one of the rare occasions where the Foreign Legion played like a team and inspired those around them. Emerson's strike, the last decent thing he did that season, was very well taken, but it's the first and third Boro goals that leave the longest lasting impression. Look again at how Ravanelli (typical of our luck for most of that season, we lost him to a season-ending injury in this game) and Juninho link effortlessly with the rest of the team before Juni scores what would be one of the Goals Of The Season. And look at the way the third goal is created and scored - Stamp, Freestone and Mustoe combining brilliantly before Craig Hignett scores one of his most memorable goals in a Boro shirt. Not a foreigner in sight!

Yet our Foreign Legion's influence on the game was undeniable that day. Even if they were aided by what the not-yet-Sir Alex Ferguson said was the worst defensive display he'd seen from his team in years, it was their goals, and their movement - especially Juninho's - that inspired the rest of the team beyond belief. Our defence, too, with Big Nige at his most determined, was excellent - but sadly not quite capable of holding out for the win that would have ensured our survival, three points or no three points. To this day, I can't help wondering... what if we hadn't allowed Gary Neville to fire United back into it before the break? We would have then been spared the agony of having the game rest on the admittedly contentious decision not to allow a penalty after a "foul" by Phil Stamp.

Ultimately, though, the game illustrated what we had missed throughout the month of April 1997 - Juninho doing what he does best. Helping us to win. It was clear that repeated, unwelcome attention from man-marking, coupled with fatigue, had drained both him and us of confidence that month. By May, he was back at his best and terrorizing defences, albeit too late for us.

Luckily for him - and us - his real reward in a Boro shirt was to come, seven years later.

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