“Yer Joking Aren’t Ya?” New Book Explores Middlesbrough’s Unforgettable 1996/97 Season

In April my new book “Yer Joking Aren’t  Ya: The Story of Middlesbrough’s 1996/96 Season” was released. Featuring interviews with players from the squad, the book recounts the story of the unforgettable season. Starting in August and the sun-soaked optimism of Fabrizio Ravanelli’s debut against Liverpool, the season is told month-by-month finishing with the despair of our second heartbreaking appearance at Wembley in the FA Cup Final.

But where the story really began was in the Summer of 1994. Two men were having dinner. One was Steve Gibson, who had recently replaced Colin Henderson as chairman of Middlesbrough Football Club. The other was former England captain Bryan Robson. “Captain Marvel” as Robbo was known by Manchester United fans had recently called it a day on an exceptional playing career. Knowing he was interested in a pathway to management Gibson had approached him about the vacant position at Middlesbrough.

Robson wasn’t keen.

“At first I thought, Middlesbrough…I’m not so sure,” Robson recalled in Dave Allan and Adrian Bevington’s book Doom to Boom. “I knew quite a bit about Middlesbrough from when I was a kid as a Newcastle supporter and at first it didn’t really appeal to me.”

Gibson would have known where Robson was coming from. When he joined the board a decade earlier Gibson remembered, “The gates were down to about 5000 and the club was losing £5000 to £6000 a week. Everything, right the way through the club, was rotten.” Gibson, of course, was the saviour of 1986, but it wasn’t until 1994 that Gibson clutched majority ownership of the club. What Robson didn’t realise was that the Middlesbrough he knew, the Middlesbrough everyone knew, was soon to be a thing of the past. Everything you associated with the club was being ripped up. The club’s identity was being shredded and started anew.

Gibson saw the radical way in which the football landscape was unfolding. Italia 90, the Taylor Report, the birth of the Premier League all played a part in asserting the sport to the forefront of the culture. Gibson knew that Rupert Murdoch’s Sky deal was only the beginning, and that the sport was on the cusp of being flooded with cash. Gibson saw Middlesbrough at the forefront of this new era and was plotting a revolution. All he needed was a spark. He knew Robson would be that spark.

Robson couldn’t help but find Gibson’s soaring optimism infectious. Gibson told him to sleep on it and then set-up a dinner with the wives included. After about half an hour, before dinner had even been served, Robson reached across the table with his hand and said ‘You’ve got a deal’. Champagne was ordered.

“I said, “Excuse me,” before going outside the room where I screamed the place down with joy!” Gibson recalled about the moment Robson joined.”

Gibson gave Robson just one season to get promoted so Boro could kickoff life at the new stadium in the Premier League, which Boro securing promotion on a emotional final match at Ayresome Park with a 2-1 win against Luton.

Then the spending began. The new state-of-the-art Riverside Stadium was still getting final touch-ups the morning of the first home fixture against Chelsea. Boro fans watched big money singing Nick Barmby set-up Craig Hignett to smash in the first ever goal at Boro’s new home. These days the Riverside can sometimes be on the end of derisory remarks, compared to most modern stadia it’s perhaps nothing special. But it’s important to remember that in the post-Taylor Report wave of new stadiums in the last 25 years, the Riverside was the first. In 1996 season the second youngest stadium after the Riverside was Selhurst Park, built in 1924. Playing at the Riverside in 1996 was genuinely like playing in the future.

And then came Juninho. The thralls at Teesside airport to witness his first steps in Teesside. The thousands at the stadium who came to see him wave and do a few keepy-ups. The town was gripped by a Samba hysteria. My Dad was one of those who stood in the line that snaked around the stadium to snap up the last of the season tickets. “Is it worth queueing all this time for a season ticket?” a bemused local reporter asked those in the line. “Definitely,” said one supporter. “Juninho’s on his way now and there’s no stopping us. The only place is up.” He could have chosen Arsenal, Inter, probably any club he wanted, but he had decided to make “Meedlesbrow” his new home.

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The love affair between Juninho and fans was immediate. The crowd roared and the heartbeat quickened with anticipation every time he touched the ball. But truthfully it took a while for Juninho to really integrate into Robson’s team. Boro’s best football that season was played in the ten games before his arrival, and he and Barmby never seemed comfortable sharing playmaking duties (ironically both had far more success when partnered with the vastly underrated Craig Hignett). Boro’s season stuttered and they finished 12th.

But the league position didn’t really matter. The 1995/96 season almost felt like a prequel for what was to come next. Everybody was waiting to see what next giant leaps Gibson and Robson would be taking. Naturally they looked abroad to find truly the best on offer.

In Portugal Bobby Robson’s Porto wrapped up a dominant season on May 12th with 1-0 win against Os Belenenses, winning championship finishing 11 points clear of Benfica. The league’s Player of the Year was a maverick Brazilian midfielder named Emerson. Within a week he’d be doing keepy-ups in the Riverside carpark with Boro having persuaded him to trade Champions League football for Teesside.

Later that week the Champions League Final took place at the Stadio Olimpico between Juventus and Ajax. The Bionconeri’s top scorer Fabrizio Ravanelli opened the scoring, seizing onto a defensive error to score from a tight angle. He wheeled away in ecstasy, before pulling his shirt over his head for his signature celebration. By the end of the night he would have his hands on the biggest prize in club football. On top of the world nothing could have prepared Ravanelli for the next drastic steps he would take in his career.

I was on family camping holiday Northern Italy when I found out Ravanelli had signed for Middlesbrough. The man in the tent next to ours was reading the Gazzetta dello Sport andcame over to show my Dad the front cover. “You seen this?” he said to my Dad. There on the cover was a picture of Ravanelli and the words Middlesbrough.

These signings were truly groundbreaking. The Premier League was fast becoming a destination for foreign stars, but the path to English football was usually forced onto the players. Cantona had been ostracized in France. Bergkamp was a flop in Italy. Ruud Gullit was in the twilight of his career, and even Jürgen Klinsmann had turned 30 when he signed for Spurs in 1994. In the signings of Juninho, Ravanelli, and Emerson Middlesbrough were showing they were a club capable of attracting players in their prime with their best years ahead of them, fending off competition from mega clubs in Spain and Italy.

And it started so, so well. The euphoria of the debut hat-trick. The highlight-reel hammerings of Coventry and West Ham. Ravanelli couldn’t stop scoring. Emerson was pinging them in from wherever he wanted.

And then it all went so, so wrong. Most football matches I attended that season at the Riverside finished with a miserable walk back under the underpass, the depressed groans and mumbles of fans squashed together.

Then the debacle at Blackburn happened and the 3-point deduction. Emerson went missing (“Teesside is a strange, terrible place,” his wife said). Ravanelli was slagging us off to the papers back home. In these pre-social media days I smuggled a portable radio into school and listened to the 3-point appeal in the cloak-room where I heard the damning words, ““The board considers that a deduction of 3 points is right and fair.” Yer joking aren’t ya?

Revolution? This was a shipwreck.

But then what followed was simply extraordinary. A whirl of drama and emotion that was ceaseless. Juninho embarked on one of the most sustained stretches of brilliance English football has ever seen. At Wembley, for the 20 minutes after Ravanelli thwacked the ball into the net, there was pure euphoria, the old stadium crumbling and shaking as Boro fans bounced with joy, only for Heskey to dash our hopes in the last minute. A few weeks later Steve Claridge would crush our dreams completely in the replay. In any normal season that would have been heartbreaking enough to tolerate, but there would be so many other moments Boro fans would have to endure.

There’s something about this season that I’ve never been able to let go of. They say that it is the hope that kills you. But really it is actually the hope you live for. And in the Summer of 1996 Boro fans were filled with more hope than they ever dared think was possible. Pangs of anguish are still felt when certain moments of the season are recalled. The regret of what could have been still lingers. But for the players who took part, and the fans who were there, it was a time they would never forget. There has been jubilation recently with the planned charity match pitting many players from this with the decidedly more successful side from Steve McClaren’s team. All these years later it is still the players from the 1996/97 season that Boro fans want to see again. The book is a tribute to one of the most extraordinary stories in Premier League history.

An excellent journey through a truly unparalleled season and a must-read for any football fan, you can order Tom Flight’s debut book, ‘Yer Joking Aren’t Ya’ here.

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