In the mid to late 90s, Boro flexed their financial muscles and put themselves on the football map some eye catching transfers. As the new Cellnet Riverside Stadium opened, the high profile capture of Nick Barmby promised a new future for a club that had bounced between the top two divisions for too long.
A second transfer would send shockwaves around Europe as Boro acquired their first true superstar; Juninho. The Brazilian weaved his magic as Boro became a team that generated intrigue and optimism.
Not to be outdone, manager Bryan Robson continued to attract the big names, bringing Champions League winner Fabrizio Ravanelli in from Italian giants Juventus for £7m, a monumental amount of money during that era.
Fast forward to 2003; Boro had a £30m player.
Gaizka Mendieta’s career was a slow burn, but his role in the Valencia side that rocked Europe at the turn of the century, brought his considerable talents the recognition they deserved.
As captain of Hector Cuper’s Valencia, Mendieta played an integral role in his team’s march to successive Champions League finals. He was the heartbeat of the side. His all action style and phenomenal technique placed him in the role of chief orchestrator of an attack brimming with talent.
Despite their plethora of talent, Cuper couldn’t quite get his side over the line in the league or in Europe. The vultures began to circle, and one by one the team was torn apart and the players dispersed around Europe.
In Italy, Sergio Cragnotti was splashing the cash and turning his nearly men of the 90s into perennial Scudetto title challengers, and eventual winners. He had already sanctioned the signings of Christian Vieri, Marcelo Salas, Juan Sebastien Veron, Angelo Perruzi and anyone else with Champions League pedigree. His manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, had moulded a side worthy of winning the scudetto, which they did at the end of the century.
For Cragnotti, domestic success was just the beginning, and what better way to succeed in Europe than bringing in a player who had taken a provincial club into the Champions League final.
The first piece in his jigsaw was jet-heeled striker Claudio Lopez, who scored some spectacular goals as Valencia’s number 7. Soon to follow would be Valencia’s conductor and captain Mendieta.
The fee? £30m.
Two difficult years passed with not a trophy to speak of and a reputation that now made Mendieta a nearly man. The talent was still there, but it was hidden, masked from view by a lack of playing time and dwindling confidence.
Enter Middlesbrough and Steve McClaren.
The summer of 2003, had seen Boro attempt to improve the quality of the squad, but at that point, Doriva and Alan Wright were the only summer signings, and both on free transfers. Boro needed someone that would get the fans excited, someone who could take them to the next level.
Venturing to Rome to meet the man himself, transfer impresario and fax machine aficionado Keith Lamb sold McClaren’s bold vision to make Boro a team that consistently made it into Europe. Mendieta was convinced; he had nothing to lose. English football was a perfect match for his style of play, and he could become the fulcrum of a developing attack.
Back in Middlesbrough, transfer rumours had become part of the fabric of Boro’s time in the Premier League. This was different though. A departure from the latter days of Robson’s reign when cheaper British players were signed, to a new dawn of European talent. Players that could make a difference at home and possibly, hopefully, abroad.
At the time of his arrival, McClaren suggested that signing Mendieta was as important to the club as signing Juninho back in 1995. He was right, a player of this calibre and class, still in the prime of his career, had not been seen at the Riverside since those exhilarating years in the mid-90s.
Making his debut against Leicester off the back his unveiling at half time of a 4-0 defeat at home to Arsenal, Mendieta took up a role on the right, not at the heart of the midfield, but a position where he could be just as dangerous.
In his new role, he would have the license to cut inside, break the lines and create for his team mates. It was a role in which he would excel. Reaching the heights of his Valencia days would be tough, but his first home appearance certainly had the fans salivating at the prospect.
A home debut against rivals Leeds, introduced Boro to Mendieta and his technically proficient skill set. Despite losing the game 3-2, he was involved in both of the goals.
Southgate ventured forward from defence,and found Mendieta between the lines. He receives the ball with his back to goal, but instinctively he knows what’s around him. With his left, he controls the ball, and rotates his body. Facing the box, he jinks right and is unceremoniously hacked down. Before the referee can blow, the ball breaks to Nemeth who fires it home.
His second involvement. A dead ball. One of Mendieta’s specialties. Free kicks, corners, penalties.
Standing over the ball on the right, hands on hips, sizing up his angles. He swings in a dangerous ball that sucks the opposition towards the goal line. The knock down falls kindly. Juninho gets it out of his feet, and with a flick of his left foot, lobs the ball into the top right corner of the net.
Despite flashes of excellence from Boro’s stars it was a difficult start to the season, after only two wins in the opening ten games. Nowhere near the start required to be challenging for Europe, as Keith Lamb had promised Mendieta in Rome.
During the season, Mendieta used his considerable talents to create some notable goals and assists.
Chelsea, The Riverside Stadium – 5th October 2003
After the turbulence of the early part of the season, McClaren’s side were beginning show signs of life. Mendieta was beginning to find his feet in the league, finding time and space on the ball to create chances for his team mates.
A home defeat to Chelsea showcased this passing ability, as the Spaniard recorded another assist to Nemeth with a defence splitting through ball. His vision, matched with his composure, allowed the Slovakian striker to take the shot in his stride and fire past the keeper.
Wigan, JJB Stadium – 29th October 2003
It would be in the Carling Cup that Boro would find their best form. Mendieta played a key role in these fixtures and recorded his first goal for the club at the JJB Stadium against Wigan.
A cool, calm finish was characteristic of the player and the man.
Wolves, The Riverside Stadium – 1st November 2003
As part of his recruitment, Steve McClaren had completely remodelled the team’s right after the departure of loan star Geremi. Danny Mills had also been brought in to compete with local lad Stuart Parnaby. Against Wolves, the Boro right would conjure up the first goal with some quick thinking, and a phenomenal finish.
Charging down the right flank was Danny Mills’ forte, getting past anyone that stood in his way. The goal against Dave Jones’ Premier League debutants, came from one of these ventures into opposition territory.
While Mills and the Wolves players argued about who had done what to who, quick thinking Juninho took the free kick and tapped the ball into Mendieta’s path. These cultured continental stars don’t have time to wait around for the natives and their endless complaining.
Shifting the ball out of his feet, Mendieta looked up. He was a fair distance out. Two touches and a great strike later it was 1-0 to Boro. Two in two for Boro’s new star.
The team’s fortunes started to turn with a much needed unbeaten run that ushered them up the table into a more comfortable position.
Everton, The Riverside Stadium – 3rd December 2003
League Cup progress continued with an extra time victory over Everton, which featured a crunch time penalty, scored by Mendieta himself. Watching the penalty again, the assuredness of his dribbles on the way to the spot, coupled with his deliberate placing of the ball on the spot, and the confidence to just roll the ball past the keeper, is something to behold.
Arsenal, Highbury – 20th January 2004
After beating Tottenham at White Hart Lane on penalties, that featured a rare Mendieta miss, Boro headed back to North London, and Highbury, to face Arsenal. The game came just ten days after the Gunners had put another four past Boro in the league; the path to the final appeared to be blocked.
Arsene Wenger rotated his side for the tie, but McClaren knew what this meant to the club. A full strength team was the only option and his starters would not disappoint.
The goal was another example of the expert combination between Boro’s two creative maestros, with a bit of French guile thrown in for good measure.
A sharp one two between Maccarone and left back Franck Queudrue broke down, but as was typical of Boro’s marauding full back, he powered forward. As Queudrue barged into the tumbling Keown, the Gunners centre back could do nothing but direct the ball back into the centre of the pitch.
With the ball at his feet, like a quarterback ready to take a snap, Mendieta surveyed his options. Maccarone was commanding the defenders attention with a direct run into the box, but Mendieta was looking right; Juninho was his wide receiver.
An expertly slotted through ball found the little Brazilian in acres of space. A touch to get the ball out of his feet, Juninho unleashed a fierce low drive. The ball rippled the net and Boro’s number 10 bounced and spun with joy towards the travelling Boro horde.
Objective one of the semi-final was complete. The second would prove to be the icing on the cake.
Mendieta’s class, his range of passing and technical ability was a joy to behold during his first season at Boro. Despite not achieving a consistent run of results in the league, he had become an integral cog in the team. His poise on the ball was second to none, coupled with Juninho’s dribbling and Zenden’s tireless drive and work rate, Boro had a strong unit going forward.
After overcoming Arsenal in the Carling Cup semi-final, Boro would need this attacking trio to get off to a positive start against Sam Allardyce’s Bolton in the final.
Of course, that historic day in Cardiff was one Boro will never forget and secured a place in Europe for the following season. Keith Lamb was right.
The remainder of the season played out in much the same vein as the early stages, some excellent performances mixed with some poor defeats. It was clear that McClaren would need to strengthen in the close season to compete in Boro’s maiden European campaign.
Birmingham, The Riverside Stadium – 20th March 2004
Before the end of the season, there was still time for another Mendieta masterclass, and it came at the Riverside in an eight goal thriller against Birmingham.
Mendieta was instrumental in the victory and was involved in Boro’s first four goals. Scoring the first himself, Mendieta crossed for Maccarone to score, delivered the corner for Southgate’s scrambled finished from a Danny Mills knockdown, before playing a delightful ball to Maccarone, who scored with a fantastic effort.
It was the performance of a £30m player. Boro were about to sign him for free.
As the end of the season came round, it was common knowledge that Boro had agreed Mendieta’s loan deal would convert into to a permanent transfer. What transpired is that Boro would be able to sign Mendieta on a free transfer. An incredible transfer deal, and one that probably has not happened often in the intervening years.
Once his place in the squad became permanent, Boro were ready to make the leap.
For the team, the season was a complete success, for Mendieta it was a write off.
The season became an injury plagued nightmare for Mendieta as he managed a mere eight appearances in Boro’s highest Premier League finish. It was a bitter blow for the midfielder, who had spent the previous season rediscovering his golden touch.
In the 2005-06 season, Boro had strengthened further with the addition of Yakubu to keep their place amongst the top eight of the league. Regaining his place in the team after injury was tough, and some of his performances were not up to his high standards, but he was still a vital part of Boro’s attack.
During the UEFA Cup run, Mendieta featured in a number of games, but did not play any part in the later rounds thanks to a broken bone in his foot, which ended his season. It would also prove to be a turning point in his Boro career.
After Steve McClaren’s departed for the national team job, Gareth Southgate moved off the pitch and into the dugout. A move towards a squad made of younger was at the core of the new manager’s plans and he made it clear on multiple occasions that Mendieta would not play a part.
As he had done with the other experienced players, Southgate lavished praise on Mendieta’s work rate and attitude in training. Despite that, he would not be allowed anywhere near the first team. It was a strange situation indeed and one that did not provide an adequate end to the career of such a talented player.
Talented and thoughtful with the ball at his feet, Mendieta brought a touch of class to a Boro side with a wealth of talent. These times were truly great in Boro’s history, and there were some excellent performances amongst the ‘typical Boro’ displays that fans have grown up with.
Despite his career ending on a somewhat sour note, Mendieta was instrumental in Boro’s successes throughout this period, regardless of whether he reached the heights of his inspirational era at The Mestalla.
A true class act as a player, the same can be said of his conduct after being frozen out by rookie manager Southgate. There were never any rumours of his unrest or causing ructions behind the scene, he turned up for training every day, working diligently and keeping a low profile.
Signing a £30m player does not happen to club’s like Boro. Mendieta’s signing was a coup of the highest order, and one of its kind. His best displays showed why he had been voted European Midfielder of the Year for two consecutive years. His poorer performances showed why he played at a club like Boro, and not one of the European juggernauts.
There is one other game that showed Mendieta’s true class, at home to Manchester United in October 2005. A truly outstanding display from a truly outstanding player.