In 1996 Bryan Robson brought Fabrizio Ravanelli to the Riverside to join Brazilian stars Emerson and Juninho in one of the most extraordinary spells of transfer activity the English game had ever seen as Middlesbrough assembled a side of superstars on Teeside.
Boro weren’t known for being a flamboyant side that attracted the biggest names in the game at the time. Though they had been part of the inaugural Premier League season in 1992/93 under Lennie Lawrence, they only lasted one season in the top-flight before going straight back down at the end of that campaign.
Prior to that they had been promoted to the old First Division via the playoffs in 1988 before suffering a similar fate with that particular relegation signalling something of an exodus among some of the very players who had been responsible for their rise to the top – most notably Gary Pallister who left for Manchester United for a then record fee of £2.3million.
But amidst the gloom there would be a shining light in the form of Steve Gibson, a local businessman and lifelong fan who had a vision for his beloved club which he was determined to see become a reality and would be paramount in their eventual transformation.
Gibson had been key to the survival of Boro in the mid-1980s when things became so bad that their Ayresome Park ground had been padlocked as they were unable to raise the £350,000 capital required for Football League registration.
Having formed a consortium which enabled the club to complete their registration with the Football League for the following season Gibson would eventually buy-out Scottish & Newcastle’s shares in the club in 1993 and replaced Colin Henderson as the club’s chairman in 1994.
His ambitions seemingly knew no bounds and having acquired around 90% of the club he would also overseeing the construction of a brand new 30,000 capacity home for Middlesbrough in 1994 as The Riverside Stadium became the biggest stadium built in this country for 70 years at the time.
So when Middlesbrough were eventually promoted back to the Premier League in 1995, under the guidance of ambitious new manager Bryan Robson, the sky was the limit with no end of world class talent making their shopping list as Brazilian star Juninho was welcomed to the Riverside by thousands of excited fans after signing from Sao Paulo for £4.75 million in October 1995.
Juninho was, in fact, Robson's second major transfer coup of the season following the capture of Nicky Barmby from Tottenham for £5.2m; a real statement of intent at the time that saw the England starlet leave the bright lights of London to head north in a move which took his spending spree to the £10million mark for the season.
A 12th place finish in the Premier League assured the club were on a sound footing to progress with their ambitious plans while Steve Gibson appeared more than happy to back his manager to the hilt and no more so than when it came to the club’s transfer activity as Boro set about signing some of the best talent around.
Another Brazilian, Emerson, arrived in the summer of 1996, a skilful and unpredictable player who was capable of terrifying defenders while thrilling crowds due to his vast array of tricks and flicks despite his somewhat scruffy and unkempt appearance; but just when it seemed like things could not get any better another huge arrival threatened to trump all which had gone before.
In an incredible coup Bryan Robson would secure the services of Champions League winner and Italian international Fabrizio Ravanelli, who arrived from Juventus for a cool £7million, a proven goalscorer who could use both feet and arrived in English football having played with some of the greatest in the world.
If that wasn’t enough Danish international Mikkel Beck arrived from Fortuna Köln, while Brazilain star Branco, who had made 72 appearances for his country also joined what was quickly dubbed the: “United Nations” of football.
Robson’s men began the 1996/97 season with a thrilling 3-3 draw against the “Spice Boys” of Liverpool on a sunny August afternoon as Fabrizio Ravanelli completed a sensational hat-trick; just three of some 31 goals he would score that season.
A defeat at Chelsea and a draw at Nottingham Forest was followed by three consecutive wins against West Ham, Coventry and Everton as Middlesbrough set their sights on the top end of the table, though it proved to be little more than a false dawn as eight defeats in 12 quickly dampened the early season optimism.
A victory over Everton proved to be the only highlight of a bleak mid-winter for Boro though without doubt the turning point of the campaign came just before Christmas when they failed to fulfil a fixture against Blackburn due to a bout of illness; a no-show which resulted in a three point deduction which they never really recovered from.
Four straight wins in March, along with the signings of Gianluca Festa and Mark Schwarzer who would go on to be stalwarts at the club, provided hope that there might be an end-of-season recovery while Middlesbrough actually only lost two further games; but a total of 16 defeats would ultimately be their downfall.
Distraction came in the form of two epic cup runs which secured Wembley appearances in both the FA Cup and the League Cup, but relegation was confirmed on the final day of the season after a draw with Leeds - the three points they were deducted would ultimately be the difference between staying up and going down.
However, it wasn’t necessarily what Middlesbrough did on the pitch that Robson’s side would be remembered for, or even the glamour of two cup final appearances, it was the fact that they offered genuine belief to teams outside of the elite group at the time that they too could eat at the top table.
Middlesbrough’s “Foreign Legion” had thrilled crowds up and down the country with their cavalier approach while playing without fear against some of the biggest names around and proving they could mix it with the best as the goals of Ravanelli, the trickery of Emerson and Juninho ensured a memorable nine months for those fortunate enough to follow them.
The debate as to whether such signings are good for the domestic game continues to rumble on, but what Middlesbrough did do back in the mid-1990s was give clubs of all sizes the hope and belief that it could one day be their year while ensuring that English football would be the number one destination for the very best players on the planet for the next three decades.