Hope, Chaos And Despair: Looking Back At Middlesbrough’s 1996/97 Season

It’s the hope that gets you, it’s always the hope. Any fan of a team that are perennial strugglers will tell you the same thing; we far too easily allow ourselves to imagine a glorious future for our football club. One where we sit atop the world (or at the very least, League Two), and forever sing songs about how great we are. And yet, this hope is always a part of an unattainable dream. Middlesbrough fans know this only too well…

The seeds of expectation for ‘Boro supporters began back in 1994. They appointed the legendary Bryan Robson as their manager, with his mission statement to get them promoted to the Premier League. Robbo duly delivered in his first season, securing the First Division title for the club. Middlesbrough were back in the big-time, and they had a shiny new stadium to go along with it too. Fans would say away to the historic Ayresome Park, and h’way to the new Riverside Stadium. Hope was becoming contagious at the club.

Riverside Revolution

With a solid mid-table finish for Middlesbrough in their first year back, the feeling was good in the north-east. But they wanted more. The year before, the club paid £5 million for 22-year old Brazilian starlet, Juninho, who lit up the Riverside. Middlesbrough would ambitiously dip their toes in the transfer market again in the summer of 1996, and the world would take notice. Enter: Fabrizio Ravanelli and Emerson.

With the highly-regarded international trio of Juninho, Ravanelli and Emerson now at the club, Middlesbrough’s 1996/97 season promised to be a memorable one. And it was, but just not for the reasons that ‘Boro fans had hoped for.

Things began well, with the silver fox Ravanelli bagging a hat-trick on his debut as Middlesbrough drew 3-3 with Liverpool on the opening day. He also helped introduce England to a new goal celebration: the shirt over the head. And after three straight wins in September, everyone at the club was running around like lunatics with shirts over their heads.

By the end of the year though, they were burying their heads in shame.

The Blackburn No-Show

An abysmal run of games saw Middlesbrough without a win in twelve. The squad simply wasn’t turning up to games. And on 21 December, they literally weren’t turning up to games. They were due to play Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park, but Robson called in sick. He told Blackburn that his team couldn’t fulfill the fixture due to injuries and sickness. Tony Parkes, Blackburn’s manager at the time, was somewhat surprised:

“One of the players had gone home and he phoned me up and said he’d seen on Sky Sports that Middlesbrough weren’t going to turn up because they had ‘flu.

“It was just unbelievable. I’d never heard of anything like that happening in football.

“I phoned the Premier League. They didn’t believe me. They said they’ll have to come, they’ll bring the youth team. That was the first the Premier League had heard of it, too.”

It was an extraordinary situation and one which played a part in the downfall of ‘Boro that season. The Premier League would disagree with Robson’s sick-note excuse, eventually docking the club three points for their failure to play the game.

The point-docking came at a time when Middlesbrough had begun to turn a corner in their season. It seemed that the tide was finally flowing in the right direction on the Riverside; the exciting ambition at the start of the season was actually coming to fruition by March. They went undefeated in six games, banging home 13 goals in the process. This was free-flowing, attacking football at its best. And maybe, just maybe, it could save the club from relegation.

Misery in Middlesbrough

But that’s just the hope talking again. That’s the deceitful little trickster luring fans in once again with the promise of “the good times”. Middlesbrough were unable to prevent their dismal slide out of the Premier League, finishing just two points off safety. The surreal self-abandonment at Ewood Park cost them dearly, but it wasn’t the only reason for their demise.

Robson’s team was undoubtedly a creative sight to behold. A joyful attacking spectacle up-front, which caused untold nightmares for opposition defenders. However, they also caused nightmares for their own defence too. 60 goals were conceded by the ‘Boro back-line, the worst record in the league. And the inability to prevent these goals was their ultimate un-doing that season.

Despite their failings in the league though, Middlesbrough still conjured up two incredible cup runs. They reached the finals of both the FA Cup and the League Cup. But again, whilst the club dreamed of glory, reality was a harsh wake-up call. They would lose both finals. Perhaps a trophy could’ve rescued a flicker of joy from this crazy season, but it wasn’t to be.

The dream had died at the Riverside and the hopes of a city were crushed. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go, this should’ve been the season where they rose majestically to greatness – instead, they suffered a harsh fall from grace.

And it was the hope that got them. It’s always the hope.