The notion of festive spirit and the season of goodwill possessed a hollow ring on that fraught day almost exactly two decades ago when all hell broke loose after Boro – whose playing squad was decimated due to injuries and a crippling virus – took the decision to cancel their game at Blackburn Rovers, scheduled for the following Saturday afternoon of December 21.
The eventual upshot was that Boro were fined £50,000, docked three points for their actions and ordered to pay the costs of an FA Premier League compensation following a commission hearing in January.
But the far heavier price proved relegation in May, an estimated £7.5m of lost revenue and big ramifications for the club in their quest to establish themselves as a top-flight force – with the pre-Christmas events of 20 years ago cited by those on Teesside as the catalyst to Boro’s stock diminishing.
The chain of events started in a torrid build-up to Boro’s trip across the Pennines just before Christmas, 1996 with a virus engulfing the club’s squad, which was already ravaged by injury.
The result was that beleaguered manager Bryan Robson was left with just 12 available senior players – three of whom were goalkeepers.
With just 17 contracted players across the whole club at his call – including five rookie youngsters, two of whom were just coming back from injuries – the cupboard was bare for Boro ahead of a big survival game with Rovers.
Boro – fearful that more players would succumb to the virus that was sweeping through the club – endeavoured to liaise with Premier League officials about their predicament, although chief executive Keith Lamb was unable to speak to league supremo Rick Parry, who was not in his office at the time, while general secretary Mike Foster was reportedly on holiday.
The club eventually did speak to a senior league official and it was then that the prospect of the game potentially not taking place was first raised with Boro’s squad options in tatters.
Boro maintained that the league informed them that, under existing rules, a game could be called off on the grounds of “just cause” and, after a series of talks, the club decided to postpone the game on the Friday morning – believing that they had followed all due procedure and the letter of the law.
All told, Boro were without 23 sick, injured or suspended players and believed that the situation left them with no option but to pull out of the Blackburn game.
Medical evidence supported their claim that they would have been unable to do themselves justice in the relegation six-pointer.
It was then that the story developed at a frantic rate of knots with the Premier League subsequently informing the club that they would have to abide by the “consequences of the postponement”, a statement that amounted to a veiled threat.
The national media quickly turned on Boro, while Blackburn’s Sheffield-born manager Tony Parkes had his say and labelled the club’s actions as akin “to a Sunday League side”.
Boro were ultimately called before the league commission and deducted three points, with the game rescheduled – with Blackburn chairman Robert Coar’s vehement campaign that the Teessiders should have forfeited the game being passed up.
Coar said: “We argued strongly that Middlesbrough should have forfeited the game on the basis that they must have believed that Blackburn Rovers would have won.
“The commission warned that in future forfeiting a game might be an appropriate penalty.”
Parkes, who had also felt that Rovers had a good chance of being awarded the three points before the hearing, commented: “That hasn’t happened and this is the second-best decision for us.
“But there are still things that we need to know. For instance, will Middlesbrough be allowed to field players they have signed in the meantime? It is very hard to recreate the original circumstances or situation.”
If that scenario had occurred and Boro had forfeited the original game, they would have stayed up, with Coventry City going down at their expense.
After the five-hour hearing at the FA’s London headquarters, ashen-faced Robson left the capital and made no comment on the decision that ultimately had such grave consequences for Boro, who were left four points adrift at the bottom of the table.
The Premier League also refused to comment after the hearing beyond a statement detailing the sanctions.
It was not a great time for Boro with the sanctioning of the points deduction arriving on the same day that star striker Fabrizio Ravanelli told reporters in his native Italy that the club were doomed to relegation – with the man known as the ‘White Feather’ concerning himself more with the white flag.
Speaking to an Italian newspaper, Ravanelli said: “I reckon we will be relegated, I am almost certain of it.”
Robson needed such meek talk like he needed a hole in the head, with Ravanelli pouring further fuel onto the fire by criticising the Boro manager for giving the players three days off after Christmas with the club in strife at the foot of the table.
In hindsight, the Ravanelli exit strategy began then in earnest. I
In the final analysis, the mindset of some of the club’s expensively-assembled squad and the dressing-room chasm between certain superstars and solid professionals played its part in the relegation story every bit as much as the three-point deduction.
The rescheduled game took place at Ewood Park and finished in a 0-0 draw on May 8.
Had Boro – without the injured Ravanelli, who managed to recover in time for the FA Cup final nine days later – won, then they would have stayed up.
But relegation was confirmed on May 11 after the club’s 1-1 final-day draw at Leeds United, with their subsequent appeal against the costly docking of those three points failing.
Relegation also, if the rumours are to be believed, prevented Boro from adding some more stellar players, with persistent speculation having suggested that Brazilian left-back Roberto Carlos was destined to move to Teesside if the club had stayed up.
Alas, for the Boro supporters, it was not to be.
In the event, star man Juninho, who wept tears of anguish at Elland Road, was sold to La Liga outfit Atletico Madrid for £12m in the summer, while Ravanelli lasted just two games at the start of the following season before moving on to Marseille in France.