Continuing our series on the 20th anniversary of the birth of the Premier League, Leon Wobschall talks to Craig Hignett, who reveals it was not all peace and harmony in the camp as world-class stars were attracted to Middlesbrough under Bryan Robson
THE sight of Juninho crying dejectedly on the Elland Road turf in May, 1997 remains one of the most evocative Premier League images.
The tears, borne of sheer frustration and bewilderment, were shared by thousands of Middlesbrough supporters that Spring Sunday afternoon when a 1-1 draw at Leeds United consigned multi-cultural, star-studded Boro to the second tier at the end of the 1996-97 campaign.
It was the season that had everything and a little more besides, as midfielder Craig Hignett recalls.
Football with a swagger, exotic signings and goals aplenty was played out to a Samba beat led by Juninho and Brazilian compatriot Emerson, with the Teessiders suddenly the darlings of the back-page media, who had previously labelled them as ‘Boring Boro’ under Jack Charlton in the Seventies.
However, dressing-room disharmony culminated in a punch-up involving Fabrizio Ravanelli and Neil Cox on the morning of the 1997 FA Cup final, with grass stains said to be evident on their Wembley suits during the traditional pre-match walk on the hallowed turf.
There was also cup final heartache – twice – and a deduction of three points for catastrophically failing to fulfil a league fixture at Blackburn due to injury and illness.
Pure box office: you could not have made it up.
Recalling the white-knuckle ride that was 1996-97, Hignett, who along with Curtis Fleming and Robbie Mustoe were also regulars in Boro’s first Premier League campaign of 1992-93, said: “It was such a weird season. To get to two cup finals, lose them both and then get relegated when we shouldn’t have done...
“I still don’t know the full story of the three-point deduction, it might never ever come out.
“But it could have been handled better. We could have turned up that day with whatever team we had and got beaten 6-0 and still stayed up. That rankled at the end of the season.
“Looking back, we didn’t have a great team spirit, to be honest, and had a lot of egos floating about. We didn’t get on great, although when we clicked, we could beat anyone in the league.
“If everyone was really together, we could have done a lot better.
“Juninho was brilliant, different class – while Emo was the same. But Rav was different, he was selfish; a typical goalscorer who would speak his mind.
“He’d always do it when he was in Italy playing for his country. When (word of) that came back, that angered a few of the lads and there were a few arguments and people didn’t like him because of his attitude.
“But he was a world-class player. I’d dread to think what Rav would cost now; he’d just won a Champions League and was the top scorer in Europe when he joined us. Someone like him now would cost £100m or something stupid with the wages he’d be on.
“At times, though, the foreign lads got away with a few things that the English ones wouldn’t have. That didn’t go down well.
“Having said that, what a season... If we’d have stayed up, there was talk of people like Roberto Carlos coming. Romario was another who was mentioned. Robbo (Bryan Robson) had lined them all up.
“We already had great players. Emo was frightening, the strongest player I’ve ever seen. He was a great lad. Although he did have the time when he went back to Brazil and no one knew where he was. I think he got involved with the carnival.”
It was all so different to the time Hignett joined from Crewe in the autumn of 1992, a season which ended with relegation.
Decidedly average training facilities, an atmospheric if antiquated stadium in Ayresome Park and a dressing room where the only ‘foreigners’ were Scottish and Irish.
The club’s decidedly provincial image started to change when Bryan Robson took charge in May, 1994, enticed by go-ahead chairman Steve Gibson’s plan to make Boro a serious top-flight player.
Gibson talked big, but backed words with deeds with the plush 30,000-capacity Riverside Stadium – at the time the biggest football ground to be built since the Second World War – being completed in just 32 weeks.
The Riverside was also the first new purpose-built ground to be built in line with the Taylor Report, requiring all top-flight sides to play in an all-seater stadium, although its christening almost never arrived.
That came on August 25, 1995 and Hignett will be remembered as the man who scored the first Riverside goal in Division One champions Boro’s 2-0 win against Chelsea.
Hignett said: “When I got fan letters as a player, it was always about that goal. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it, but now it’s something I’m really proud of.
“It was touch-and-go that the game was going to be played. We trained there on the Friday, but if you were in the stadium building, you had to wear a hard hat as it wasn’t finished. The safety officer hadn’t passed the ground and it was only on the Saturday morning it got the go-ahead.”
A crowd of 28,286 – Boro’s biggest for 14 years – watched that day, a far cry from just prior to Robson’s arrival, when gates were slumping below five figures.
The Teesside public quickly bought into the Boro dream sold by an irresistible double-act in Gibson and Robson and after the title-winning season of 1994-95 when Boro paid out their first seven-figure fees to sign Cox and then Jan Aage Fjortoft, a major statement was made in the 1995 close season when £5.25m Nick Barmby arrived.
That October, the bar was raised further when Juninho arrived and Teesside turned yellow and green to herald the man forever known as ‘The Little Fella’.
Hignett said: “To get promoted in our last season at Ayresome to playing in the Premiership in our first season in our new ground was unbelievable.
“I remember when Nick came – a young England international with a full career ahead of him who decided to join Middlesbrough. I think that was the transfer that changed things.
“Then Juninho came after just being voted Brazilian footballer of the year. You just thought ‘Wow’.”
Relegation proved a temporary blip with the Teessiders, inspired by £5m Paul Merson, making an instant return to the top flight and further star signings arrived over the next decade.
Hignett added: “You look back now and think ‘Did Middlesbrough achieve all that?’
“Without doubt, as a chairman, Steve Gibson has been the best there has been in football.”
The Former Manager
In charge of the Boro from 1991 to 1994
FOR ME, it was nice to be involved in providing momentum at Middlesbrough leading up to the ‘Riverside Revolution’.
I had an input in Bryan Robson coming to the club after I left at the end of the 1993-94 season. I got on very well with the people at Middlesbrough, such as Steve Gibson and Keith Lamb – I still do. I was keen to see the club do the right thing and progress and did have a part to play in that. And it went well, didn’t it?
The big decision for them was the fact they were going into a new stadium and they needed to be in the Premier League when they moved there.
Middlesbrough looked at it and thought: ‘Lennie got us up once, but, now we’ve gone down again, can we risk it?’ That’s what their thought process would have been.
Their answer was ‘no’. They then had a chance to get a player at the time who was as big as you could get in Bryan Robson and it worked for them.
I know they went on to have a few ups and downs, but Middlesbrough became a Premier League force. They enjoyed an exalted spell, deservedly so.
In my time there, we got it going, but Robbo took it to a new level with much more money also being available for players. The profile of the club was raised and the infrastructure developed and they sustained things for the best part of 15 years.
Looking back at my time managing Boro, I had three good years. The first 18 months were fantastic and we got promoted to the inaugural Premier League and also got to the semi-finals of the League Cup.
But it was hard after that because it was a different Middlesbrough to most of the Nineties and early on this century. There wasn’t the money that came to be there, so it was difficult to sustain Premier League status.
Then Robbo came at the end of the 1994-94 season when I left and they invested significant money and it coincided with the new stadium, and the club just took off. The club maximised its potential. At places like Middlesbrough, the football club is the focal point of the community. I’m not sure it’s the case in really big cities, but it was there.
The club had a golden era and it all went very well and, for me, it’s an area that merits Premier League football.
Looking back at when we were relegated in the first season of the Premiership in 1992-93, I think we were a bit unlucky. We started well and finished okay and our really bad spell was at the start of the New Year. In the end, we finished with 44 points from 42 games and in most years that would have kept you up. It was very tough.
We just had a small squad and got a couple of key injuries and, unfortunately, couldn’t sustain things.
First game in 1982 and has followed them since . Has had a season ticket since 1986
MOST of our time in the Premier League was an absolute fairytale.
I remember our first season at the Riverside Stadium in 1995-96 when we brought in Nick Barmby.
We were the new kids on the block and everybody seemed to adopt us as their second team, and people really wanted Bryan Robson to do well.
Back then, we were one of the first teams to move away from an old ground to a new purpose-built stadium. I think it cost £13m – that wouldn’t buy you a stand at some of the grounds nowadays.
That season was about consolidation. After that, Steve Gibson decided to throw a few quid at the situation and bring in some seriously top-drawer players.
We’d actually already signed Juninho, which was fantastic. Yet in terms of moulding the team, it didn’t quite help at the time as we had Craig Hignett, Barmby and Jan Aage Fjortoft and when Juninho came, coincidentally, Barmby wanted to move on and eventually went to Everton.
From then on in, Juninho was an absolute star; brilliant. He pushed the club on to bigger and better things.
That said, all Boro fans remember that infamous 1996-97 season for going horribly wrong with two cup finals both ending in defeat and then the three-point deduction for not turning up for the Blackburn fixture costing us dear.
But looking back, that was still probably the most entertaining season we have had. There were some fantastic moments purely because we had top-notch players such as Juninho, Ravanelli and Emerson. To have a trio like that, you felt you were watching somebody else’s team at times.
After a blistering start, things came tumbling down. Perhaps Robson stayed too long and we brought in Terry Venables to bail him out.
The Steve McClaren era saw him build a new team and we won the Carling Cup and played in the UEFA Cup final and he proved arguably the most successful manager we ever had before he left for the England job.
Then it started to go wrong. We overspent and went down under Gareth Southgate and now fans are just getting their head around the fact we are pretty cash-strapped and must balance the books.