The Riverside years start
After two seasons away, Middlesbrough were back in the Premier League for the 1995-1996 season and also, set to welcome a new home with the state-of-the-art Riverside Stadium ready for action. This was an opportunity for Boro to go and become an established force under the guidance of ex-Manchester United midfield marvel, Bryan Robson.
Middlesbrough finished in 12th position despite an alarming run in the winter months and settled in well into their new surroundings. The signing of the Brazilian Player of the Year, Juninho also attracted plenty of attention from the supporters on Teeside.
Bringing Barmby in
Middlesbrough had dominated the First Division in 1994-1995 and won the title with plenty to spare. Manager Bryan Robson brought in three new signings. He used his contacts from his Manchester United days to bring in Gary Walsh, who had become frustrated playing second-fiddle to Peter Schmeichel at Old Trafford.
The big deal though was a club-record fee that was paid to Tottenham Hotspur to bring in midfielder Nick Barmby. His £5.25 million transfer surprised many considering how important he had been to Tottenham’s improvement in the previous season.
Middlesbrough top-flight return began with the first live Sky Sports fixture of the season away at Highbury against Arsenal. There was plenty of attention on the two major Arsenal signings, David Platt and Dennis Bergkamp but neither got much of a look-in and it was Middlesbrough’s new recruit who stole the show. On his return to north London, Barmby opened the scoring and although Ian Wright equalised before half-time, the 1-1 draw was a fair result.
A Riverside carnival
The Taylor Report, which required all stadiums in the top division to become all-seater meant Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough’s home couldn’t be expanded further due to its location in a residential area.
Work started on a new stadium in the autumn of 1994 and The Riverside Stadium (the name chosen by the fans) was ready for the start of the new season. 28,286 spectators were there for its first match and the first goalscorer in the new stadium was Craig Hignett after being set-up by Barmby. Jan Aage Fjortoft scored the second as Middlesbrough beat Chelsea 2-0 to make the perfect start in their new home.
In fact, Middlesbrough made a seriously good start to their Premier League return. They lost just one of their opening 10 matches and that was a narrow 1-0 loss on Tyneside to local rivals and early pacesetters, Newcastle United.
That run also included a five-game winning sequence. Hignett was proving to be a real focal point and matchwinning penalties were enough for 1-0 wins over Sheffield Wednesday and Queens Park Rangers. The win over the latter took Middlesbrough into the dizzying heights of fourth position in the table and another carnival was set to take place days later with the introduction of a new Brazilian.
22nd OCTOBER 1995 TABLE
Brazilian midfielder Juninho was being tracked by numerous European clubs after his performances in the international team. So, it was a major surprise to see Middlesbrough win the race to his signature. Boro paid Sao Paulo £4.75 million for his services. He was welcomed to the club in a carnival atmosphere where a piece of Brazil seemed to have landed in Teeside.
There was plenty of hype around Juninho’s debut which came in early November. The match with Leeds United finished in a 1-1 draw and Juninho made an instant impact by setting up the opening goal in the 11th minute for Fjortoft to convert. His skills, tricks and pace wowed the supporters and he scored his first goal in his sixth appearance for the club in a 4-1 home win over Manchester City.
Although Middlesbrough’s unbeaten home record did end in November with a 1-0 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, they toppled Liverpool FC days later 2-1, thanks to goals by Neil Cox and Barmby who continued to justify the price tag Robson had paid for him in the summer.
By Christmas, Middlesbrough had lost just four times in the Premier League and were in the shakeup for a UEFA Cup qualifying position alongside the likes of Arsenal, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest.
Boxing Day brought about a reality check and a real shock with a poor display on Merseyside – losing 4-0 to Everton. It started a horrendous run of form that saw the Teesiders plummet down the table.
A painful winter
The Everton defeat began a worrying run of 13 matches without a victory. There was a real lack of a goalscoring touch too with Boro scoring just five times in this period and one of those was an own goal from Newcastle United defender John Beresford.
In that period was a run of eight successive defeats which was among one of the worst sequences of the entire Premier League season. The nadir was a horrendous performance at Stamford Bridge in early February, losing 5-0 to Chelsea with Gavin Peacock scoring a hat-trick. By mid-March, Middlesbrough had dropped to 13th in the table. Luckily, the form of the teams below them was not great so there was still a nine-point cushion to the bottom three.
36 points had been garnered already and a 1-0 victory at the end of March over Leeds United thanks to a spot-kick by Graham Kavanagh eased any lasting concerns. A week later, Fjortoft scored twice in a 3-1 Good Friday win at home to Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough finished in 12th place which was a respectable position on their return to the top-flight.
Robson knew though work was required in the forward line. Only Southampton and relegated Manchester City scored fewer goals than Middlesbrough in 1995-1996 and he began to search for a new forward that summer. A flamboyant Italian would arrive and the next 12 months were going to be among the most dramatic and heartbreaking in the club’s history.
FINAL 1995-1996 TABLE – 11TH TO 16TH