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Riverside revisited

Harry Pearson recalls when his club were at the centre of world star transfer sagas. City fans be warned. It all ended in tears

There have been moments during the last few weeks when I’ve had the unnerving feeling I’ve stepped through a tear in the time-space continuum on the way to the paper shop and ended up in 1997. A young, former Man Utd player, tipped by many to one day succeed Sir Alex Ferguson, in charge of the team; a Brazilian star who’s run off home without permission; simmering resentment among some elements of the foreign contingent and a scattergun transfer policy that leads to international superstars playing alongside provincial journeymen. Stir in a relegation battle, a blundering executive and a group of notoriously long-suffering fans and the whole thing has a weirdly familiar ring.

In the end though it seems that something far stranger than time travel has happened. Because as far as I can make out Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi has set himself the singular task of turning the current Manchester City side into Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough of 12 years ago. Indeed all the ineffable Garry Cook needs to do now is decide his team need not bother turning up for a game against Blackburn and the transformation, barring a couple of Wembley Cup final appearances (you’ll need to work on that Your Excellency), will be complete. As aims go it’s certainly an eccentric one, but no odder than the antics of other  extremely wealthy men down the ages. Who knows what would have happened if Howard Hughes had ever bought a football club?

The signs of what was going on have been there right from the start of the ­season. Watching Mark Hughes ruefully smiling about the transfer rumours surrounding the club took me back to that August day in 1996 when I went to film a segment for a local news programme and watched Bryan Robson produce a similar self-effacing grin when it was put to him that, in the wake of Juninho, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Emerson, Teesside might be on the verge of witnessing the arrival of Roberto Carlos from Real Madrid. As it was the thunder-thighed Brazilian never came, so we had to make do with Curtis Fleming at left-back instead.

Fleming was a nice guy and an honest pro but, like Robbie Mustoe, he wasn’t someone you expected to see playing alongside the one-time ­Brazilian footballer of the year and the Italian who had just scored in the ­Champions League final. One reporter likened Robson’s side to wearing an Armani suit with wellingtons. It’s a fashion statement that seems to have been embraced at Eastlands these days, though sadly the thrilling prospect of seeing Kaka paired with Darius Vassell appears to have gone for the time being. And so too has Robinho.

I’m sure that few on Teesside could have heard about his unexpected disappearance without  thinking of shaggy-haired midfield monster Emerson, whose unscheduled holidays in Brazil were once the delight of sneering journalists across the nation. Perhaps City might persuade one of Robinho’s female consorts to chip in by describing Manchester as “a dark and terrible place” and really give things an ­authentically nasty twang.

The backstage shenanigans of Elano and co meanwhile call to mind the brooding presence that was Ravanelli. The Italian’s characteristic goal celebration, wheeling away with his arms outstretched and his shirt over his head, became one of the most imitated of all time. The other enduring pose was altogether less endearing. Standing, hunched shoulders, hands resting on the small of his back, mouth hanging open, eyes narrowed with pained disgust, after a pass, usually from the hapless Dane Mikkel Beck, had failed to reach him. In those moments Ravanelli gave the impression of an athletic version of Albert Steptoe.

Off the field Ravanelli worked even harder to stir up trouble. Hardly a week went by without him being “misquoted” in the ­Italian press. Along with complaints in the press about drinking, diet and poor training regimes (he insisted on bringing his own fitness coach over), the White Feather’s misanthropic attitude did not go down well with his team-mates and led to alleged scraps with Neil Cox and Fleming in the build up to Boro’s 1997 FA Cup final appearance and a further dust up with an unidentified player shortly before his departure. No sign of fisticuffs at Eastlands just yet, but the signing of Craig Bellamy will surely rectify that.

Having scored the winner with a diving header in his last game at The Riverside, a First Division encounter with Charlton, Ravanelli finally left Teesside with one last swipe: “There is no way Middlesbrough will be a big club while it is run in such an amateurish way.” Somehow I feel we may well hear similar words from Elano or Robinho before the year is out.

From WSC 265 March 2009

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