Anthems are invariably repetitive but the paean celebrating Middlesbrough’s journey to the 2006 Uefa Cup final took things to extremes. “Small town in Europe, we’re just a small town in Europe,” Teessiders chorused on the road to Eindhoven and defeat against Sevilla.
The limited lyrics failed to prevent those seven words becoming an evocative, now rather poignant, soundtrack to the season when Gareth Southgate, Stewart Downing and the rest of Steve McClaren’s team annotated the town’s place on football’s European map.
A decade earlier Middlesbrough had, albeit briefly, secured a prominent page in football’s world atlas. The owner, Steve Gibson, by positioning his club at the vanguard of an international trend, ensured the team prompted excited conversation from Stockton to São Paulo, Redcar to Rio de Janeiro and Thornaby to Turin.
Remember when Brazil’s Juninho joined Bryan Robson’s Boro for nearly £5m at the new Riverside Stadium in 1995 and was swiftly followed by the £7m Italy and Juventus striker Fabrizio Ravanelli?
Once Ravanelli became the Premier League’s highest-paid player on £40,000 a week, Teesside proved an unexpected magnet to those pioneering migrants destined to create the top tier’s first significant wave of foreign imports.
Robson persuaded Emerson, another Brazilian, to defect from Porto while Internazionale’s Gianluca Festa reinforced the defence and Denmark’s Mikkel Beck arrived in attack.
Beck lives in southern Spain but he left a little piece of his heart on Teesside and is organising a Boro all-stars charity match for coronavirus victims at the Riverside. It will pit Robson’s class of 1995-99 against a mix of McClaren’s League Cup-winning, Uefa Cup final-reaching 2004-2006 teams and Aitor Karanka’s 2015-16 promotion side.
Given the intention is to play in front of a 30,000-plus full house, the date remains necessarily flexible. When kick-off comes, Juninho, Ravanelli and Jan Aage Fjørtoft should star for Robson’s old boys, and Karanka has volunteered to coach the opposition. Funds raised will be directed to the families of the deceased and collateral Covid-19 casualties with lost livelihoods.
With other old favourites including Robbie Mustoe, Craig Hignett and Nick Barmby on the invitation list, it promises to combine a wonderful wallow in nostalgia and 90 minutes of “what ifs”. Or, more particularly, what might have been had Robson’s team not been relegated in 1997 as they achieved an unwanted hat-trick, also featuring losing appearances to Chelsea and Leicester in the FA and League Cup finals.
Relegation could have been avoided had Boro not made the calamitous decision to pull out of a Premier League game at Blackburn in December 1996 with less than 24 hours’ notice.
The Football Association was unimpressed by claims of a rapidly violent flu epidemic and deducted three points. After Boro ended up two points in arrears of fourth-bottom Coventry, Juninho and Ravanelli departed for Atlético Madrid and Marseille respectively.
It was as if a light had been flicked off. Suddenly the gorgeous Juninho pass that prefaced Fjørtoft scoring in the 1-1 draw with Leeds and marked the Brazilian’s Riverside debut appeared depressingly distant.
A couple of years earlier Juninho’s mother had felt equivalent excitement about her introduction to Middlesbrough. She was so taken with the exoticism of Marks & Spencer that club officials were asked to house her son next door to its Aladdin’s cave of shopping possibilities. They explained, gently, that North Yorkshire’s villages might be more suitable.
By the time Juninho retired, three separate chapters of his career had taken place at Boro and he remains friends with the Brazilian couple who turned up at Teesside airport to meet him on his first day.
Once it became apparent the interpreter hired by the club had a rather rudimentary grasp of Portuguese they became indispensable, their local knowledge helping Juninho swiftly integrate.
Although Emerson relished nights out at the Tall Trees Nightclub – formerly a footballers’ Mecca in the Georgian market town of Yarm – culture shock engulfed him and Ravanelli. Emerson’s then wife dismissed her new habitat as “a dark and dangerous place”, claiming relatives were “scared to step off the plane” at Teesside. Ravanelli made almost as many public complaints about Boro’s training regime as the 17 goals he scored.
The “White Feather’s” hat-trick on his Boro bow in a thrilling 3-3 home draw with Liverpool remains foremost among the still vivid memories he created and he, like Emerson, now views his Riverside odyssey through a softer, more affectionate lens.
On- and off-pitch adventures continued as Robson recruited Rangers’s Paul Gascoigne, Inter’s Marco Branca and Arsenal’s Paul Merson. Promotion was quickly clinched, another League Cup final lost against Chelsea and Gascoigne “borrowed” the keys to the £250,000 team bus, causing £20,000 worth of damage after crashing it into a, mercifully, empty bus shelter. A club tour of Libya, at Colonel Gaddafi’s invitation, followed.
The word surreal has become synonymous with the present, dystopian moment in history but Beck’s charity match promises to build a psychologically healing bridge to some happily bizarre past times once enjoyed by a small town in Europe.