A Brazilian friend called from the United States, where he had taken up residence. He has a broad knowledge of the game but this was just a little bit beyond him. "Tell me about Middlesbrough," he said. It wasn't much of a story. Produced some fine players, Wilf Mannion, George Hardwick, George Camsell, gave Graeme Souness his big chance and once managed by Jack Charlton who took them back into the old First Division, but not a big prize to their name. And what about Robson, as a player one of the great modern heroes. "From the sound of things, as daring as he was on the field," I said, "as he is frequently in the company of bookmakers."
That day the plot was written for Saturday - Middlesbrough's defeat in the second of two cup finals, having already been relegated from the Premier League, and the sight of their leading foreign imports, Juninho, Ravanelli and Emerson embracing for the last time as team-mates.
The easy thing to say is that Robson made a mess of things, taking the long price when more discretion was called for. With one or two exceptions, particularly the captain and centre-half Nigel Pearson who might have turned things around had he played all season, it has been pretty obvious that Middlesbrough's defence could not provide the dazzling attackers with a secure platform.
But if Middlesbrough's performance in their first FA Cup final proved that the gap between outstanding accomplishment in some positions and the rest was too great for any good to come of it, Robson and Gibson deserve some credit for their boldness. The gamble did not work but where were Middlesbrough before it was taken?
Middlesbrough's despair emphasises, I think, the quite ludicrous extent of expectations raised by football's new money. Wolverhampton Wanderers, with their splendid stadium still stuck in the First Division, Sunderland relegated when about to move house, Middlesbrough forced to begin again at the Riverside.
Without wishing to detract from Chelsea's first major success for 26 years, a good question is how much, for all the historical romance and the passion it arouses, does the FA Cup matter when set against the inevitability of a European League? From his demeanour after this season's defeat in the competition by Wimbledon the Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, conveyed the impression that other issues were far more important. With his far seeing eye, the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, does not appear greatly touched by an internationally famous competition.
The future threatens the FA Cup's great tradition. Second best, downgraded in aspiration. A carnival event of no great significance in the wider scheme of things. Does Ruud Gullit think that? For all the delight he expressed on Saturday, successful in his first season as a fully blown coach, you can bet your life he does.
Again falling short of expectations, the 116th Cup final was not much of a match anyway. I cannot think of another in which so many poor players put in an appearance, their rank deficiencies emphasised by the occasional virtuosity of Juninho and Gianfranco Zola.
Robson's gamble with Ravanelli's fitness went wrong and Juninho's heart must have fallen at the sight of Mikkel Beck coming on as a replacement. Once thought to be a forward of great potential, the new Michael Laudrup no less, the Dane's fumblings so frustrated Juninho that he felt obliged to instruct him in the art of receiving passes.
Pulled apart by Mark Hughes's decoy run, Middlesbrough could not prevent Robert Di Matteo scoring after 43 seconds, two seconds faster than Jackie Milburn's strike for Newcastle in the Fifties, and that was it.
After that, Chelsea were a big disappointment, pushing up to catch Middlesbrough offside 16 times, seldom chancing their arm until Eddie Newton scored a second seven minutes from time. "A very professional performance," Gullit said. It tells you where the Dutchman is coming from.
The exhibitionists were in the front row of the royal box, all wearing blue in some form or another. Typically, Ken Bates and his friends made the most of it. Whatever happened to dignified government in football?Reuse content