WEDNESDAY marks the 20th anniversary of Middlesbrough’s first game at the Riverside Stadium – and Boro supporters would be fully entitled to ask: ‘Just where has all the time gone?’
It was on August 26, 1995 that the Teessiders embarked on a whole new era at the space-age Riverside against Chelsea – Ruud Gullit et al – in front of 28,286 fans, who were literally shaking their heads in wonderment at their club’s palatial new home.
Goals in each half from Craig Hignett, bestowed with the honour of scoring the first Riverside goal, and Jan-Aage Fjoftoft made it a perfect summer Saturday by virtue of a 2-0 victory to usher in a fresh footballing dawn on Teesside.
Byran Robson’s Boro, who ended life at Ayresome Park on April 30, 1995 with a 2-1 victory over Luton Town, which ultimately clinched promotion back to the big time, strode out across town a mere 119 days later.
The Riverside, with a capacity of more than 30,000, was the first stadium to be built after the Taylor Report. It took just 32 weeks to complete for a cost to the club of £16m.
That said, the build-up to that Riverside opener was not exactly plain sailing.
In the hours before kick-off against Chelsea, an army of workers were still putting the finishing touches to the stadium to get it fully ready, as scorer Hignett recalls.
He said: “We weren’t sure it would be ready. We trained on it the day before.
“We still had to wear hard hats around the place and it still hadn’t been signed off for its safety certificate. But we were assured that, come Saturday, the game would go ahead.
“Coming out to see the stadium full was something I will never forget. It took on another level.”
With all due respect to Ayresome, the Riverside, situated in the Middlehaven area on the south bank of the Tees, was from a different stratopshere.
Granted, Teessiders will forever hold Ayresome close to their hearts, with the Holgate, Bob End and Chicken Run etched into Boro folklore.
As are former PA announcer Bernard Gent, the North Stand clock featuring the message ‘McEwan’s 80/- Time’ and Boro’s popular run-out song, Cyril Stapleton’s ‘Power Game’, the theme tune to a TV series of the 60s which has happily been reprised at the Riverside.
But the time was nigh to move on in the mid-1990s, with the stadium project the most visible sign of new-look Boro’s intent to make a sustained impact at the top level – for the first time in their history.
The Riverside was a serious game-changer and helped tempt some big names north, while also being instrumental in luring Robson to Teesside in May, 1994 – when plans were well down the line with the new stadium.
It would certainly have been hard to envisage Nick Barmby, whose £5.25m arrival in the summer of ’95 totally obliterated Boro’s transfer record, striding out at Ayresome, whose brochure was hardly as alluring as the Riverside’s.
Small wonder that the phrase ‘Riverside Revolution’ started to frequent sportswriter’s copy during those heady days of the mid to late 90s, with Boro finally setting sail.
By and large, the Riverside has proved an accomodating home for Boro, who have lifted the 2004 League Cup and reached the final of the 2006 Uefa Cup during their time there, also sampling one promotion and two relegations.
The stadium also hosted England’s 2-1 win over Slovenia in a 2004 European Championship qualifer in June, 2003 during the hiatus when Wembley was being redeveloped, along with six under-21 internationals and 2012 Olympic warm-up games.
But it is the medley of memories provided during the Juninho, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Emerson era alongside the thrilling run to the final of the Uefa Cup in Eindhoven that take place pride of place for the Boro faithful, when looking back at their Riverside ride so far.
A thrilling promotion season inspired by the signing of Paul Merson in 1997-98 is not too far behind either, a season when second-tier Boro reached the final of the League Cup.
Crowds flocked to the Riverside, so much so that Boro averaged 29,283 in its first season in 1995-96, their highest average attendance since 1951.
It was perhaps the fateful 1996-97 campaign, when Boro reached two cup finals – but were also relegated – that saw the Riverside first resonate with fans across the land, with the catalyst being the opening-day 3-3 draw with Liverpool, when debutant Ravanelli hit a hat-trick in front of the Match of the Day cameras.
Boro were finally something akin to a marketer’s dream, as they cultivated a reputation as being great entertainers at the Riverside; firmly casting aside those ‘Boring Boro’ jibes of the 70s in the process.
Despite the blow of relegation, crowds flocked to home games the following campaign when the Teessiders averaged 29,994 to help secure an immediate passage back to the top-flight. It rose to 34,386 in 1998-99, a time when Boro were box-office at a capacity-increased Riverside.
Average home crowds of 30,000 were commonplace throughout the first-half of the noughties, with the presence of a succession of continental stars including Christian Ziege, Alen Boskic and Christian Karembeu a world away from the club’s moribund days at Ayresome in mid-eighties, when crowds dipped to 5,000. It was all scarcely believable.
Boro’s progress culminated in their first major honour in 2004, with European football staged on Teesside for the first time on September 16, 2004 when 29,746 saw goals from Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink and Mark Viduka (2) gave the hosts a 3-0 Uefa Cup win over Banik Ostrava.
The striking duo were central figures the following campaign alongside Massimo Maccarone, who inspired the self-styled ‘small town in Europe’ to reach the final of one of the continent’s major finals.
The ‘Road to Eindhoven’ season of 2005-06 saw Boro stage Lazarus-style comebacks not just once but twice to enthrall not only a packed Riverside but millions of viewers across the land to stage truly remarkable aggregate wins over Basel and Steaua Bucharest.
Trailing 3-0 on aggregate, Steve McClaren’s side secured famous victories over their Swiss and Romanian rivals, with the job completed on each occasion in the dying stages by Maccarone, whose ‘super-sub moniker’ was every bit as deserving as the one given to a flame-haired Scouser called David Fairclough.
Plenty more memories have also been provided in the Riverside’s two decades of existence thus far, but those occasions took some beating.
How Boro supporters will be hoping that there’s more to come, while raising a glass to salute the Riverside when they next pop in.