When Boro got bonkers: rucks, relegation, two cup finals… and training at a prison

Middlesbrough 1996/97

Middlesbrough’s Premier League return came on the anniversary of their most memorable campaign, featuring stellar names, two cup finals and, 20 years ago, a very costly cancellation

Middlesbrough supporters headed down south to Wembley Stadium in their thousands, with hope in their hearts – and anger, too. It would be the Smoggies’ first (and, to date, only) FA Cup final, yet their joy was laced with pain, their euphoria tempered by relegation from the Premier League. The Boro fans arrived at the symbolic home of English football to protest, finding themselves at war with officialdom and the FA suits they blamed for their club’s demise.

Little did they know, Boro’s players were at war among themselves, unwilling to go down without a fight. At least, that may have been the case off the field. On it, Roberto Di Matteo scored for Chelsea after 43 seconds. The final was over as soon as it had begun.

But what FFT can reveal for the first time is the full story behind Boro’s calamitous season, which ended in fisticuffs between team-mates even before referee Stephen Lodge whistled to get the 1997 final underway.

The angry Italian

It was back at the team hotel where, according to Neil Cox, Fabrizio Ravanelli took exception to an interview that the defender had given to the Daily Star, suggesting the iconic Italian striker should be left out by manager Bryan Robson in favour of Mikkel Beck.

While we were having the photos taken for the suits and sunglasses, he decided to spit and throw a punch. I dived in, fists flying

- Neil Cox

“I did an interview on the pre-match press day as a favour to a mate and I left Rav out of the starting XI because, like me, he was struggling to be fit and we couldn’t afford to gamble,” Cox says. “On the Saturday, it was all over the back page: ‘Cox – Rav should miss out’. So while we were having the photos taken for the suits and sunglasses, he decided to spit and throw a punch. I dived in, fists flying. I wasn’t slagging him off. I was right. That’s why it got nasty. We had a scuffle.”

Tempers flared as players were about to board the team bus, where comedian Stan Boardman was preparing for the toughest gig of his life.

“It turned into the most awful final preparation for the biggest game of most of our lives,” midfielder Robbie Mustoe recalls to FFT. “In the team photograph, you had Ravanelli basically trying to reach across players to have a fight with Neil.

“There was so much crap – even on the way to the game, Rav was shouting at Neil at the back of the bus. There were players sat there who weren’t involved in the game and had been drinking the night before, and Robson thought it would be good to have Stan telling some jokes. It smacked of unprofessionalism.”

Boro were their own worst enemies, says Mustoe’s team-mate, Craig Hignett. “Back-biting, bitching, people wanting to have a fight, and then to go and play the biggest game of our lives – we didn’t give ourselves a chance,” Hignett grumbles. “As a boy I had dreamed about playing in an FA Cup final at Wembley, but behind-the-scenes chaos meant it was just surreal. It definitely contributed to that goal.”

Robson, Hignett and Blackmore endure the FA Cup final defeat parade

There was anger in the stands as well. Some 30,000 Boro fans vented their collective spleen in the direction of FA chief executive Graham Kelly as he led the royal entourage to meet the players. The Duchess of Kent found herself in the firing line amid a protest at the three-point penalty imposed on Boro for failing to fulfil a fixture in December, which had led to relegation in the league season’s finale the previous weekend.

“It was a difficult day at the end of a difficult season,” says Graham Fordy, club secretary at the time. “You can see why fans wanted to vent their anger at those in authority that they felt were responsible.”

There were players sat there who weren’t involved in the game and had been drinking the night before, and Robson thought it would be good to have Stan telling some jokes. It smacked of unprofessionalism

- Robbie Mustoe

3 + 8 = nightmare

All this aggro contrasted sharply with the start of Boro’s season and the buzz created by Ravanelli’s arrival, a few months after ‘The White Feather’ had scored in Juventus’s Champions League final win.

Ravanelli, his salt and pepper hair belying his 27 years, had signed for £7 million on a four-year deal initially worth £42,000 per week, and he marked his debut with a Riverside hat-trick in a 3-3 draw with Liverpool – though Boro could’ve done with more than one home dressing room.

“It was like getting Messi or Ronaldo,” Hignett says, “but half of the squad hated him and the other half loved him. He worked hard and he was one of the best finishers I’d seen, but as a man he rubbed people up the wrong way. He was selfish in everything he did.”

Eric Paylor, who covered Boro for the local Evening Gazette, tells FFT he “electrified” Teesside: “Rav was larger than life. There’d never been anyone like him, but he thought he was above the club.”

“Steve Gibson [Middlesbrough’s owner] splashed out on him, Emerson and Juninho to tell the Premier League, ‘We’re on the march’. It was his dream to resurrect the glory days of the Jack Charlton era in the ’70s. It didn’t work, as you had two Boro teams on the pitch at the same time: three world-class stars and the other eight.”

Middlesbrough food

Ravanelli burger: somewhat bitter

Ravanelli quickly became disenchanted, judging by team-mate Jan Aage Fjortoft’s recollections of a team meeting in November ahead of Boro’s visit to Aston Villa, with the Italian striker being accompanied by agent Gianni Paladini, acting as translator. “Right in the middle of the meeting Rav had a rant, loudly and in Italian, about wanting to leave,” says Fjortoft. “I couldn’t stop laughing. At the end, Bryan said, ‘OK, Rav?’ And Paladini said, ‘Yes, it’s OK’. You could not make it up.”

Middlesbrough lost 1-0 at Villa Park as a campaign that began brightly careered downhill. A 5-1 thumping away at Liverpool stretched a winless league run to 12 games. And things would only get worse.