Just after winning the Champions League with Juventus in 1996, Italian international striker Fabrizio Ravanelli signed for Middlesbrough, an unglamours club in the north of England. Even at 12 years old this made very little sense to me but also seemed absolutely wonderful.
That signing was the icing on the cake of local businessman Steve Gibson’s project to reinvent the club. In 1994 Gibson had been appointed the new chairman of Middlesbrough. He quickly embarked on a plan to turn the club from also-rans into contenders. He appointed Manchester United legend Bryan Robson as player-manager, built a modern new stadium and sought to sign international superstars who could be lured by the growing salaries on offer in England.
International players arrived from around the globe, with Ravenelli and Emerson getting the most attention. But the heartbeat of the team was the Brazilian international Juninho. After Juninho single handedly destroyed his team, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson called Juninho “the best player I’ve seen in the Premier League this season” and that view was made official when he was named Premier League player of the season.
Middlesbrough’s 96/97 season was a roller-coaster of all roller-coasters with debut hat-tricks, Wembley Cup finals, contentious point deductions, relegation battles and so much more. The team went on runs of being totally unplayable and runs where it looked like they forgot how to play football. They played in a swashbuckling style, scoring for fun and having fun while doing it. It remains one of the most memorable seasons of any Premier League team and
Yer Joking Aren’t Ya brilliantly captures the sense of possibilities and excitement of that memorable season. Game by game, Flight game-by-game, Flight chronicles the season as it happened. Diaries of a season always risk becoming repetitive accounts of games and goals but Flight perfectly balances this, inter weaving background on the club and key characters throughout. The history is pitched perfectly for both those familiar with and those totally new to this era of English football.
The real joy of the book is how it captures something eternal about sports fandom. I often wonder how fans of mid-table Premier League teams find the energy to care about whether their team finishes 8th or 16th each season. Is ‘survival’ really an objective that can sustain interest year after year? That 96/97 season for Middlesbrough serves as a reminder that success is about so much than trophies, its about the memories, the moments, the highs and also the lows.
The book was simply a joy to read and a wonderful nostalgia trip. I would have devoured it in a day if didn’t keep going to YouTube to rewatch highlights of Juninho, Emerson and Co.
Tom has published an article on the season which which you can check out here.