Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Back In Time: Everton 4, Middlesbrough 0, 1995/96

My first Boxing Day as a Boro fan... How do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways.

When you think of Boro's infamous trouncing by Everton near the end of 1995, the best way to start is by looking at the build-up. Before Juninho made his debut (and snags with work permits had delayed it for a month,too), newly-promoted Boro, inspired by a packed Riverside, a solid defence marshalled by Nigel Pearson and the "midget gems" of Craig Hignett, Nick Barmby and Jan Aage Fjortoft, had risen to fourth in the Premiership table. It was enough to win any "neutral" football fan over - especially me. And the signing of Juninho seemed the icing on the cake.

Unfortunately the arrival of Boro's much loved "Little Fella" coincided with a run of form that, as Four Four Two put it in 1996, made "previously high flying Middlesbrough look more like Middle Yallop reserves." The signing of Juninho was the epitome of the best and worst of Boro in a nutshell - for all the joy, excitement and attention that signings like him offered, they also disrupted team spirit and organisation. His entrance into the 1995 vintage disrupted the attacking flow of the team; the "midget gems" were no more, as Bryan Robson struggled to figure out how to fit both Barmby and Juninho into the same team. In reality, both appeared to play better with Hignett - and he'd had to sacrifice his first team place to accommodate the little Brazilian.

Of course, that didn't matter while Boro prospered. Although Juninho arrived in the midst of a four game winless run (and the loss of Boro's unbeaten record at the Riverside), Boro still managed to turn on the style to beat title challengers Liverpool 2-1 and end the month in sixth place. This, in turn, sparked a revival in our fortunes, with four-goal home wins either side of a narrow loss to then champions Blackburn. It was enough to leave us in fifth place by Christmas, and had we beaten Everton on Boxing Day, we would have gone second.

But Boro, especially under Bryan Robson, tend to be built on rather shaky foundations, as if they are a time bomb ready to go off the moment something goes wrong. That "something" was a series of injuries - according to then physio Bob Ward, Boro had reached the dizzy heights of fourth by using just twelve players in the first eleven games, then had somehow stumbled through those injuries to remain at the heels of the title challengers by Christmas. The real breaking point, however, came when, according to Ward, there was a mix up over the travel arrangements and the kit didn't arrive until a matter of minutes before kick-off.

Everton then proceeded to condemn us to our heaviest defeat of the season. Craig Short, Graham Stuart (2) and a revitalised Andrei Kanchelskis got the goals in what was an embarrassingly one-sided encounter, featuring what was then uncharacteristically sloppy defending from the Boro. The concerns about what would happen if our defence had an off-day on the road were heightened here; we had scored only one goal in four away league matches prior to this one, and had carved out just one real chance in the entire match. And just when we thought it couldn't get any worse, it did - Juninho and Derek Whyte joined a growing treatment table that already featured Barmby and Hignett.

Robson wrote the game off as a "one-off" at the time, but it was anything but. We proceeded to win just seven of our next forty-four Premiership matches, a run that continued until a 6-1 win over Derby in March 1997. More importantly, the Everton thrashing was the clearest indication yet of Boro's vulnerability under pressure, a match that we could have and should have learnt our ultimate lesson from; yet today, as we continue to endure nervy match after nervy match (be honest: how often have you truly felt confident of a Boro victory?), we still seem to have not learnt a thing. Or maybe we're just not capable of what our results sometimes lead us to believe in...

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