With the fluctuating fortunes of Newcastle United and, to a slightly lesser extent, the inertia at Sunderland attracting many of the headlines concerning football in the North-East the plight of Middlesbrough is receiving less attention.
The club currently sit comfortably in a Championship play-off place, and just two points behind Hull City in the second automatic promotion spot. Devotees of the Teesside outfit could be forgiven however, for not becoming too excited just yet. At the turn of the year last season, ‘Boro had only Southampton ahead of them in the table, and had accrued 45 points from 24 matches, a similar return to this term’s 47 point haul after 26 games.
Under the guidance of Tony Mowbray, in charge at the Riverside since October 2010, the team have established an identity as regards a fluent and free-flowing style of play, which has unfortunately too often been undermined by a soft underbelly. The lack of ruthlessness in Mowbray’s ranks has thus far proved costly in any attempts to return to a Premier League in which ‘Boro were a firm fixture in very recent memory.
In fact, it is only a shade over six-and-a-half years since Middlesbrough contested a UEFA Cup final against Seville. Their place in that competition had been earned by securing 7th spot in the top-flight in 2005. That momentous achievement came a year on from the club capturing the first trophy in its history. The high of that 2-1 win against Bolton Wanderers in the League Cup final was one of a succession of occasions on which ‘Boro stood at the centre of the nation’s football gaze.
Bryan Robson may have a chequered managerial career, but the arrival on Teesside of the brilliant ex-Manchester United and England captain undoubtedly heralded a period in ‘Boro’s history which for all its magnificent ups and sickening lows, will long be remembered fondly by the clubs followers who were present during a tumultuous time.
Appointed to replace Lennie Lawrence, Robson was backed by the money of new chairman Steve Gibson to bring a raft of players to Ayresome Park, and then the club’s modern new stadium which they have occupied since 1995. Robson’s early captures were pragmatic, with immediate sights set on escaping the old First Division. Experienced and hardened professionals, Nigel Pearson and Clayton Blackmore were brought in, to be followed later in the season, with ‘Boro’s form in need of rejuvenation, by exciting forwards, Uwe Fuchs and Jan Aage Fjortoft.
Once in the Premier League, and buoyed by their new surroundings, ‘Boro signalled real intent, and completed the staggering purchases of Juninho and Nick Barmby. A year on the bar was raised even higher with the Brazilian Emerson and, most notably, Juventus’ exceptional Italian forward Fabrizio Ravanelli choosing to join what appeared to be one of the country’s upwardly mobile clubs.
The topsy-turvy campaign which followed can scarcely have been replicated elsewhere. For all the thrilling players on show at the Riverside, every potential road to success ended in heartbreak. The F.A. Cup final was lost to Chelsea, and the League Cup final ended in defeat after a replay against a Leicester City side which earned that second chance with a late extra-time goal at Wembley, and won the Hillsborough return with another goal scored in an additional 30 minutes.
Most painfully of all, ‘Boro were relegated, a scenario made particularly excruciating by a three point deduction which would have been avoided had the club, instead of pleading an injury crisis, fulfilled a December fixture at Blackburn Rovers. Without that sanction Middlesbrough would have finished 14th.