We’ve all done it. It’s a cold, rainy morning and the wind is whistling through the trees outside. You peer out of the window and the commuters look miserable. You get straight back in bed.
You look at your phone. You’re way past the time you have to get up. You pull the covers tighter.
You check again. Well even if you got up now you’d be late. So there’s really no point at all. You start practicing what you’re going to say, rehearsing the lines with your best croaky voice. Maybe add a little cough in the middle. Yeah, perfect.
You reach for a couple of tissues and jam them up your nose. You pick up the phone, suddenly feeling nervous. “Hello? Hi boss. Yeah, I’m afraid I can’t come in today.” Charade over, you feel completely elated, sock-sliding across the kitchen floor. As far as life’s little wins go, it’s way up there.
But while we can call in sick when the mood takes us, it’s a little tougher to pull off for an entire football team. Because when the Boro tried to pull a Bueller, the Premier League went a bit Ed Rooney.
What goes up, must come down
There’s an argument to say that Middlesbrough’s 1996/97 season is the most disappointing ever experienced in the Premier League. When a team is rubbish, most fans know they’re rubbish, even if they blindly hope they won’t be rubbish in enough games to declare a season in some way “not rubbish”. But this wasn’t the Boro fans’ expectations.
Boro had bounced into the Premier League the previous season, funded by the millions of local businessman Steve Gibson and managed by England legend Bryan Robson, with the surprise signing of Brazilian magician Juninho powering Boro to 12th at season’s end.
When the jerry-curled Brazilian Emerson was signed along with £7 million superstar Fabrizio Ravanelli – who had just won the Champions League with Juventus – for the start of 96/97, Boro fans were on top of the world. With a solid British spine featuring Nigel Pearson and Steve Vickers, homegrown hero Phil Stamp and every England manager’s favourite squad player Nicky Barmby, the Brazilian contingent turning the Riverside into the Copacabana and the White Feather banging in the goals, dare they dream of a title challenge?
But what was supposed to be a season of samba sensation would eventually turn into one giant kick in the Brazil nuts.
But we started so well
On a sunny day in August, fans across the country, previously giving Boro nothing more than a curious glance when tales of Juninho’s genius made themselves heard above Alan Hansen’s dour defensive diatribes on MotD, this time had their eyes fixed on the Riverside for the visit of the Spice Boys, Liverpool.
Following their terrible cream suits from the Cup Final with an ecru away shirt that actually looked quite good, Liverpool would take the lead three times, each time to be pegged back by a goal from Ravanelli. A thrilling 3-3 against top opposition had the Riverside rocking, and Ravanelli’s shirt-over-the-head celebration was being imitated on playgrounds up and down the land.
September would see four smashed past West Ham and Coventry, and an away win at Everton. But a 4-0 hiding at the hands of Matt Le Tissier and Southampton late in the month was an ominous warning. Soon the Boro were losing games all over the place.
Then as the autumn turned to winter, after a trip back to Brazil, Emerson wouldn’t come back. His wife, apparently not so enamoured with Teesside, was refusing to leave Rio and go back to cold, wet Middlesbrough. Her dutiful husband would not leave her, despite being fined by the club. Eventually, he would come back to the team, but it was clear the wheels were, if not yet coming off, certainly wonky and deflated.
If anything could illustrate the scale of the downslide, it was the reverse of the optimism-filled first game. Boro went to Anfield on December 14th and were tanked 5-1, Robbie Fowler helping himself to four, the greedy sod. Maybe they could get back on track at Blackburn?
The trip to Anfield had seen some players miss out through injury. Over the next few days, the injury list would lengthen. Then, a flu epidemic took hold of the remains of the squad. By the end of the week, just 24 hours before the match, Boro counted up 23 first-team squad players unable to play due to injury or illness. Seemingly unable to field a team, Boro called in sick.
To be fair, Boro hadn’t really helped themselves. Blackburn’s then caretaker manager Tony Parkes says he never got any contact from Robson or anyone at Boro to say they may be having problems putting together a team for the fixture. In fact, it was on the Friday afternoon, after final preparations for the match had been made and the Rovers players had gone home to rest, that one of his players had called him up to say Boro wouldn’t be coming because they had the ‘flu – he’d heard it on Sky Sports.
Parkes then claims to have called the Premier League, who apparently hadn’t heard a thing either. Of course they would come. But they wouldn’t.
There would be no game at Ewood on 21st December, and immediately the chatter began about what Boro’s punishment would be for missing the match. In a classic moment of mid-90s farce, it may have been anticipation of the punishment and a bit of old boys back-channelling that ultimately sealed their fate.
Assistant manager Viv Anderson would claim a decade later that, within the club, it was understood that chief executive Keith Lamb had sounded the Premier League out about the potential punishment for not fulfilling the fixture, and had been told they would just receive a fine. Believing that dipping into Gibson’s wallet was easier than hauling a youth team over to Blackburn to get spanked by Rovers, Boro decided to give it a miss.
But it was always going to be a risky strategy; football clubs can get away with a lot of things, but telling petty bureaucrats that their rules are stupid and and you won’t be observing them rarely ends well. In football parlance, they ‘gave the bureaucrats a decision to make’.
Case for the defence, midfield and attack
In mid-January, the Boro would get their day in court. Only of course it wasn’t in a courtroom, with all its transparency, procedure and judiciary, it was a Premier League commission at FA headquarters, where rules are rules but no one quite knows what they are or how they’ll be applied.
Not that this deterred chairman Steve Gibson, who hired hotshot lawyer George Carman to take the hearing. Having represented a string of famous faces in high-profile cases, Carman undoubtedly commanded a pay packet as big as Branco. Alas the legal eagle’s opinion, unlike the tubby Brazilian defender, did not carry enough weight.
As club after club and player after player has discovered since, sense and logic have no place in a Premier League panel, where disciplinary decisions are seemingly plucked out with the bingo balls. Despite going through every first-team squad player and explaining why each couldn’t play, highlighting grey areas and pleading for common sense and fairness, the Premier League did what it does: decided that all the evidence it had asked the club to submit didn’t mean a thing and imposed a sanction anyway.
The football world was shocked by the nature of that sanction. A £50,000 fine? Sure. But deduction of three points? Not even just a default 3-0 loss, but three fairly-won points chipped off their total and they’d still have to go to Ewood. Rovers were also no better off and they’d now have to squeeze another game into their schedule. The decision that offends the senses and pisses off all parties is 100% pure Premier League.
While Robson was getting his bottom smacked, the fans were stewing over words attributed to their star striker. “I reckon we will be relegated, I’m almost certain of it,” Ravanelli was quoted as saying in an Italian newspaper. The White Feather was raising the white flag, going on to claim that training methods were pathetic, with the struggling squad being given long periods of time off. He even claims to have tried going in to do some training only to find the training ground all locked up.
Boro would move swiftly to sign Gianluca Festa, but they were now four points adrift at the bottom. Angered by the Premier League’s decision, a rebound victory against Sheffield Wednesday gave them hope, but ironically success in the cups would stall any league momentum. It also made it hard to fit the Blackburn game in.
Wins followed losses, punctuated with runs of draws. Needing points going into the final weeks of the season, a morale-boosting win against Villa had to be followed with a trip to Old Trafford just two days later, where a respectable but draining 3-3 draw took its toll. Just three days later came that postponed trip to Ewood Park; it was a limp 0-0. Then three days after that, the season would end with a 1-1 draw at Leeds. After the docked points, the decision to miss the Blackburn game would sting them yet again, as fixture pile-up drained the team.
Boro would finish 19th, and be relegated. Without the three points being docked, they would have finished 14th – ironically just behind Blackburn. The handicap Robson’s team had carried for four months, just from calling in sick, had proven fatal.
Only it wasn’t quite the end of the season. Because despite their patchy league form, the club that had never won anything had been highly successful in the cups, making their way to both domestic cup finals. After narrowly losing out in the League Cup to Leicester – the last League Cup Final to go to a replay, back when that was a thing – the chance to lift their first FA Cup presented itself in May. After a season of heartbreak, distraught Boro zombied into the Cup Final with a chance to shake it off and win it all back.
Boro lost a goal after 43 seconds and proceeded to do nothing at all, losing 2-0. Dreams of a title challenge and trophies were over; Boro awoke in Division One.
Ravanelli and Juninho were gone, and so was Boro’s upward momentum. They’d bounce back after one year, with old stagers like Paul Merson and Paul Gascoigne giving the Riverside something to cheer about, but, a League Cup win under Schteve McClaren notwithstanding, the club have never dared to dream as big again.
Still, every club wants to be a trailblazer, and in one way they were – no football team has ever called in sick again.