After finishing 12th in their second Premier League stint with Nick Barmby as the top scorer (9 goals) it was clear that Boro needed reinforcements to bolster their team. Along came Emerson from Porto and the shock signing of Fabrizio Ravanelli fresh from winning the much coveted Champions’ League.
Their aggregate cost was £11 million - an astronomical amount back then for a mid-table club.They instantly complemented Juninho and collectively injected a genuine flair style to the still nascent Premier League. The benchmark was set from the get-go with this Boro team.
Having spent record sums during the summer, it was essential for Bryan Robson’s Boro to get off to a solid start. Their first opponents were Liverpool at the Riverside stadium. The Reds had finished 3rd the previous season courtesy of their attacking play and were looking to carry on their momentum.
Norway international, Stig Inge Bjornebye, helped Liverpool secure an early lead by scoring his first competitive goal for the club. This was cancelled out by Fabrizio Ravanelli’s debut goal for Boro before the half an hour mark with a penalty after Juninho was fouled. However, less than two minutes later, John Barnes restored the lead for Liverpool. Within a matter of minutes Ravanelli again came to Boro’s rescue as a third goal was scored in the space of eight minutes, which ensured that the scores were level at half-time.
Following the interval the match was up for grabs. With the chances on offer it could have swung either way. Boro were behind for most of the first half and things didn’t get any easier as Robbie Fowler restored Liverpool’s lead after 65 minutes. Being 3-2 up you would have thought that they could have finished off the match with their established top-flight experience. That wasn’t the case as Ravanelli, ‘The Silver Fox’, secured his hat-trick 15 minutes later and guaranteed a thrilling 3-3 result on the opening day of the 96/97 Premier League season.
Seeing as I love fantasy football, it's only fair if I also retrospectively evaluated this match from that perspective too:
3 – Fabrizio Ravanelli
2 – Stig Inge Bjornebye
1 – John Barnes
17 - Fabrizio Ravanelli
10 - Sting Inge Bjornebye
8 – John Barnes
Miller - £4.5M
Pearson - £4.5M
Emerson - £7M
Cox - £4.5M
Ravanelli - £10M
Juninho - £8M
Fleming - £4.5M
Whyte - £4.5M
Vickers - £4.5M
Mustoe - £5.5M
Fabrizio Ravanelli would end up scoring over 30 competitive goals over the course of the season and Boro ended up reaching both the League Cup and FA Cup finals, albeit losing twice. However, this sort of cup form wasn’t enough in the Premier League as they only won ten league games in total. They also infamously postponed a match against Blackburn Rovers and this solitary act arguably sealed their fate.
The subsequent docked points were enough to confine them to relegation. I firmly believe that in another era and with a stronger defence they may have challenged for the title. Although this promising Boro team never fulfilled their potential, their signings epitomised an increased trend of buying foreign players, even among the Premier League’s non-elite clubs. This was in part due to the ever-increasing TV revenue which transformed top-flight football in England forever.