Bygones: Histrionics of the ‘White Feather’ left Middlesbrough ill-prepared for moment in spotlight

Middlesbrough's Italian striker Fabrizio Ravanelli is escorted off the pitch after sustaining an injury during the FA Cup final of 1997. (Picture: Reuters)
Middlesbrough's Italian striker Fabrizio Ravanelli is escorted off the pitch after sustaining an injury during the FA Cup final of 1997. (Picture: Reuters)
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MENTION Middlesbrough’s FA Cup final defeat to Chelsea two decades ago to any Boro supporter and memories of what happened beforehand quickly come to the fore, as opposed to events on the pitch.

In truth, the game proved eminently forgettable from a Teesside perspective. Relegated the previous weekend at Leeds United, the gloom was compounded for Boro, who were second best to the Blues, right from the moment that Roberto Di Matteo’s shot beat the defences of goalkeeper Ben Roberts after just 43 seconds en route to a 2-0 reverse.

The events of May 17, 1997, were truly notable for what happened in the immediate lead up to the final, which were more focused on fisticuffs than football.

With the wounds of relegation fresh, there was rancour among the Boro camp, specifically in the direction of star striker Fabrizio Ravanelli, whose Diva-like behaviour had begun to grate on several of the club’s English players.

The Italian forward may have done the business in terms of his 31-goal output in 1996-97, right from the moment he scored an opening-day hat-trick against Liverpool, which quickly saw him idolised by thousands of Boro supporters. But his hissy fits and strutting behaviour meant that the goodwill towards him in the dressing room was not unconditional. Matters came to a head prior to the cup final, with Ravanelli struggling badly with a hamstring injury which saw him miss the club’s pivotal final two league matches of the season, but clearly determined to have his moment in the showpiece.

The ‘White Feather’ took umbrage at an interview given by team-mate Neil Cox, who suggested that a clearly unfit Ravanelli should be left out in favour of Mikkel Beck.

Fabrizio Ravanelli scored 31 league goals for Middlesbrough in the 1996-97 season.

Fabrizio Ravanelli scored 31 league goals for Middlesbrough in the 1996-97 season.

It ran on the morning of the game and matters came to a head at Boro’s pre-Wembley team hotel with a scuffle ensuing between the pair, with the mood being febrile when the players boarded the team bus.

To add to the wholly bizarre situation, Boro manager Bryan Robson had commandeered legendary Scouse comedian Stan Boardman for the bus trip to Wembley in a bid to ease any nerves among his players to ‘lighten the mood’. It was tactic previously employed by someone who he knew well in ex-Manchester United and Sheffield Wednesday manager Ron Atkinson.

In this case, it perhaps was not the wisest policy to follow. Speaking in an interview earlier this year to the FourFourTwo magazine, stalwart former Boro midfielder Robbie Mustoe recalled: “It turned into the most awful preparation for the biggest game of most of our lives. In the team photograph, you had Ravanelli basically trying to reach across players to have a fight with Neil.

“Even on the way to the game, Rav was shouting at Neil at the back of the bus. There were players sat there who were not involved in the game and had been drinking the night before.”

It turned into the most awful preparation for the biggest game of most of our lives. In the team photograph, you had Ravanelli basically trying to reach across players to have a fight with Neil Cox.

Robbie Mustoe

It was no real surprise that Boro lost. As for Ravanelli? He went off injured after 24 minutes with Beck coming on.