As they continue to languish in the EFL Championship like they have done since dropping down in 2017, the times of Juninho Paulista turning out for the Boro seem almost as unlikely as them being managed by Michael Carrick – but they’re both true!
Middlesbrough in the Premier League (‘90s)
Technically speaking, employing Carrick might be a nod to times gone by.
While the midfield metronome has indeed finished his playing career, the mid-to-late ‘90s is an era defined on these Middlesbrough shores by another Manchester United hero.
The ex-captain and forever-treasured Bryan Robson took charge of Middlesbrough Football Club in 1994 – a full two years into the revamp of the FA Premier League.
As so eloquently explained in a book written by Jonathan Clegg and Joshua Robinson titled: ‘The Club: How the Premier League became the richest and most disruptive business in sport’, Robson had chosen his term of employment very wisely.
For the world of English football was beginning to take on a very different time compared to the ‘hoof it upfield and hope for the best’ strategy of yesteryear.
Now, with bespoke commercial and TV licensing packages soon to become the norm for the elite clubs working in the Premier League, untold riches beckoned as the world would begin to take on a form far more sophisticated than before that pivotal meeting in ‘92.
Interestingly enough, Middlesbrough were founding members of the Premier League for that 92/93 season, though they weren’t considered full-time regulars for another 3 years.
‘The Robson Years’ (1994-2001)
Ironically, this period was underpinned by a critical sale of one of their major assets, before they could think about bringing in a star of their own.
The man in question was star centre-back Gary Pallister.
You see, we’re speaking of a time where players weren’t earning a house’s worth of wages every match, so every penny really counted for clubs of this particular era.
Not least for Middlesbrough, who had yo-yo’d between the divisions, even once struggled to pay a yearly FA registration fee, and could use any penny they could get if it meant stabilising the squad. So, when Manchester United came calling for Pallister to the tune of £2.3million (a British record at the time), they had little option but to take it.
As we know, United would lay siege to the earlier era of the Premier League, while it took a little longer for other teams to follow suit.
Not just in their playing efforts, but their dastardly transfer plans, too!
Including the likes of Wenger’s Arsenal and some of the elder Tottenham teams, Premier League executives all over England were beginning to realise that the new world order afforded some risk with international business.
Players like David Ginola, Eric Cantona and Dennis Bergkamp lit a pathway for budding creators to believe that the Premier League was for them.
Why did Bryan Robson Choose Juninho Paulista?
It’s a good question.
One which should have a logical answer.
But back then, it took an awful lot of convincing.
Few could claim to know more about what makes a ‘great midfielder’ than Bryan Robson, but players like Juninho Paulista weren’t exactly built with the great Englishman in mind.
The lovingly titled ‘Robbo’ was a box-to-box man, whose engine rarely ever ran out of fuel even after the race was run. Typical to players from the UK or other typically ‘hard’ or ‘tough’ places – like Eastern Europe, or somewhere of that nature.
Much like today however, international competitions (usually the World Cup, EUROs or Copa America) offers the average armchair fan and wandering scout an opportunity to analyse previously unnoticed talent from further corners of the world.
In the case of Juninho Paulista, the 1995 Umbro Cup was his stage
“No, I didn’t know about him, not until that competition. But then we got a few videos sent of him playing for Sao Paulo so we kept watching them and he had great ability, great energy levels, fantastic acceleration with the ball and that’s why I really liked him.”Bryan Robson on signing Juninho Paulista
It was the mid-90’s equivalent of a YouTube compilation.
How did Middlesbrough sign Juninho in 1995?
Well, let’s just say that it wasn’t easy.
For those not yet acclimated to the Southern American way of ‘futbol’, most of their teams aren’t mere ‘football clubs’, but rather sporting institutions with a number of different areas (and therefore stakeholders) to deal with when asking any of their subsidiaries to part with one of their better players.
So, what would have been assumed to be a quick and simple ‘how much will you take for Juninho Paulista’ negotiation with Boro and Sao Paolo, turned into a myriad of chats that would have taken well beyond the now-conventional transfer window timing.
Reflecting on the journey, Robbo explains: “You’re not just dealing with two board members or the owner of the club, you’re dealing with about 20 people, so you’ve got to convince 20 people that it’s a good deal for them to sell one of their best young players.
“So it took us about four days to convince them to sell them and we started off at$2m or $2.5m and we had to go to 4.75m US Dollars to actually get him.”
Once that was all sorted, Juninho was ready for the trip up north.
Right after he flew over the Atlantic to get there.
Juninho Paulista as a Middlesbrough Player
The precocious Brazilian joined in October 2021.
At only 22 years of age.
While there, he proved mightily effective in the rigmarole of the Premier League, and was soon to become a real cult hero by the league’s standards having almost immediately worked his way into pure heroic status on Teesside.
With every jink through a defence, to the occasional eye-of-the-needle thread of a football to unlock a still-sturdy era of British impregnability, Juninho Paulista shone through.
Such was his talent, that jealousy sprouted from down south.
London press made a big issue of Bryan Robson’s perceived lack of experience (as he was still playing the occasional game here and there for Boro when required), and downed his ability to keep everyone happy as the recruitment continued.
Fabrizio Ravanelli joined for the 1996/97 season.
Why did Juninho Leave Middlesbrough?
Well, it was because of that same season.
‘On their day’, Boro were very good indeed.
And that proved true in the cup competitions.
By ‘97, they appeared in two finals – for the FA Cup and League Cup – but lost both. At the same time, many were accusing Robson for favouring these vague attempts at silverware against their league form.
To be fair, they might have had a point.
A difficult points’ deduction for refusing to field a third string team against Blackburn in the league resulted in a pivotal 3-point loss which condemned them to relegation by the end of the year.
Thus, forcing high-paid employees like Juninho to look elsewhere.
Though he wouldn’t stay away for long…
Juninho Returns to Boro in ’02
When asked why he chose Boro, Juninho explained:
“Bryan Robson demonstrated interest, came to Brazil, showed me the project and told me that he wanted a different type of football, less physical. I believed in it.”Juninho Paulista
So, when they were relegated, it hurt him more than most.
He had brought a lot of magic to this area of the country, and found it difficult to leave, though would have understood that the £13 million received from his sale would have gone a long way to stabilise the club as they looked to rebuild.
Off he went to Atletico Madrid, and off Middlesbrough went to reclaim their top-flight spot.
They did so at the very first attempt – returning in 1998.
A delightfully mixed cocktail of Ravanelli, Southgate and co. worked well to form the club into a mainstay Premier League institution, now ‘well within their right’ to go for players like Juninho Paulista much closer to their prime years. So, they did.
He returned for £6 million – still representing a rough £2 million profit despite being bought twice in seven years – and helped them to win the League Cup in 2003/04.
Players like Juninho Paulista don’t come very often.
They represent the very nature by which football encapsulates us all.
It’s a magical game, displayed by equally magical players. Who capture our imaginations and keep us guessing as to what might happen next. Though I doubt even they know!
The poor ‘little man’ was unlucky to have arrived around the same time as Gianfranco Zola, as I imagine he would have far more singular awards to his name, had the Italian not dominated the awards for most of their shared categories.
But still, for fans of Middlesbrough Football Club, the name ‘Juninho Paulista’ is one that many of them will never forget, or more importantly – stop talking about!