Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Back In Time: Middlesbrough 4, Oxford United 1, 1997/98

Following Manchester City's last ditch title triumph, Si's Insights reminisces about a final day of the season where Boro actually got it right... 


“Very often in competitions it goes to the last game. And at one point, it looked as if you were going to qualify with a little ease, not easily, but with one or two points to spare, and now here you are, in a battle. In a war.”

- The late Sir Bobby Robson

Seven years ago today, we denied Manchester City the opportunity to pip us in the race for a European place. As you all remember, Schwarzer's injury-time penalty save broke their hearts and paved the way for The Road To Eindhoven the following year.

It was notable for being one of the few "dramatic final days" where Boro actually got it right - and City would "get it right" themselves seven years later, in the most remarkable fashion. Where there were what if's, if only's and tears of sadness in 2005, there were tears of joy in 2012.

Likewise, the despondency in Middlesbrough in 1997 was replaced by delight in 1998.

But, like City fans, we must have been wondering why we could never do things the easy way.

Lest we forget that we were in the hunt for a Champions League place during 2004/05, until injuries to key players kicked in... and that we were three points clear at the top of the then Nationwide Division One at the end of February 1998, with a League Cup Final to look forward to.

Then, disaster struck.

The cup final was lost and we picked up just one point from our next five away games. When we lost 1-0 at Sheffield United, we were four points adrift of the automatic promotion places, and I was personally ready to concede that we had lost second spot to in-form Sunderland.

However, the pendulum slowly swung, and when the Black Cats unexpectedly crashed to a 2-0 defeat at Ipswich, automatic promotion was in our hands again. A point at home to Wolves meant that a win on the last day of the season against Oxford United would take us up, no matter how our rivals performed.

Trust Boro not to make things easy though. We were both laboured and nervy against a well-organised Oxford defence in the first half, and the half-time whistle couldn't have been more welcome. Things got worse when we heard that Sunderland had raced into a 2-0 lead at Swindon, in their last ditch bid to usurp us. But our luck held.

Two pieces of Paul Merson magic unlocked the Oxford backline for the Newcastle-born - ah, the glorious irony! - Alun Armstrong to take us from a shaky position to a relatively comfortable one right at the start of the second half.  Armstrong's sixth and seventh Boro goals were made even more remarkable by the fact that he'd delayed a back operation to play, needing an injection prior to the match!

Once the pressure was off, we really began to play, and it was left for Craig Hignett to gild the lily with two excellent strikes to seal our promotion to the Premier League at last. A Nicky Banger consolation (that Mark Schwarzer really should have saved) failed to dampen the spirit of the then capacity Riverside crowd. By this point, I was already enjoying a drink and singing Chumbawamba's Tubthumping at full volume.

“We got knocked down, but we got up again, you’re never gonna keep us down...”

In retrospect, Boro's promotion success had its casualties, both short-term and long term. Club captain and inspiration Nigel Pearson called an end to his playing career due to a troublesome knee. We inexplicably decided not to offer Hignett a new deal. But at least they had gone out on a high. The same could not be said for the likes of Merson, Armstrong, Mikkel Beck and Marco Branca. In 1998/99, we saw injuries end the possibility of a very profitable striking partnership at the top level, Beck dropping out of the first team picture to make way for Brian Deane (yes), and Merson flip-flopping from praising Boro to the skies to condemning their lack of ambition and drinking culture.

Ah well. At least Hamilton Ricard proved the doubters wrong, and at least Bryan Robson established us as a Premiership club, right? At least until his mismanagement of the Okon-Karembeu-Boksic brigade led to the call for Terry Venables...

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