Football: The Little One's biggest challenge

Juninho still has much to prove at Boro.

IT WAS, in one respect, just like the last time. When Juninho was first unveiled as Boro's boy from Brazil, four years ago, it was impossible to see him. Such was the crush in the Hardwick Suite at the Riverside, with French, Brazilian and Swedish television crews among the 200-strong media throng, the 5ft 5in "little one", as his name translates from Portuguese, was simply lost in the scrum. On Friday afternoon he was not so much lost as nowhere to be seen.

"There's still the loose end of his international clearance to tie up," Bryan Robson said, explaining Juninho's absence to the handful of local reporters gathered in the media room at Middlesbrough's training ground. Unlike 6 October 1995, when the Teessiders trumpeted news of their pounds 4.75m capture to the microphone-thrusting world, Middlesbrough's manager was reluctant even to discuss the player who had returned to the North-east of England the previous evening and who had trained with the rest of his first-team squad on Friday morning.

"We got ourselves into trouble when we held a press conference about Keith Gillespie before everything had gone through," Robson said. Given Gillespie's form in the two years since he flattered on the European stage with the two crosses Faustino Asprilla buried against Barcelona at St James' Park, the Boro boss might have been in greater trouble had the deal actually gone through. But the question to be answered when Juninho's papers eventually make it to Middlesbrough from Madrid - too late for him to play at Leeds today but probably in time for him to face Chesterfield in the Worthington Cup at the Riverside on Tuesday - is whether he still has the talent he possessed when he last wore the Boro No 10 shirt.

The Juninho of three seasons ago was a genius in what could be generously described as an underachieving side. He was voted FA Carling Premiership Player of the Year and Middlesbrough's Player of the Century as Boro slumped out of the top division and crashed to defeat in the finals of the League Cup and FA Cup. He left for Atletico Madrid in the summer of 1997 because Mario Zagallo told him second-class English club football would keep him out of the Brazilian World Cup squad, though he was kept out by the unlucky break from which his career has yet to recover.

When his left ankle was fractured by the Celta Vigo defender Miguel on 1 February 1998 it was not just a World Cup place that Juninho lost. He never regained a regular place in the Atletico side. Signed for pounds 12.5m by Raddy Antic, he was deemed a peripheral first-team player by the Luton old boy's successor, Arrigo Sacchi, and deemed surplus to requirements by the coach who took over from the sacked Sacchi at the Vicente Calderon, Claudio Ranieri.

Hence his return to Middlesbrough, at the age of 26, on what amounts to a trial basis. Boro have paid pounds 1.4m to have the Sao Paulan for the rest of the season, with the option of a permanent pounds 6.5m deal. "It is my objective to be a success at Middlesbrough and to stay in the team for many years," he declared on Thursday night. "I know the team is doing better now and I hope to help them."

Juninho's help wasn't required in Atletico's opening three matches of the Spanish first division, though Robson was prepared to say on Friday afternoon that he "didn't look bad" in training that morning. "It's everyone's aim that Juninho will come in and play like he did the season that he left," the Middlesbrough manager added. "If so, then it will be a great deal for us and for Juninho."

It is clearly not going to be the same, though, second time around for Juninho on Teesside. He discovered that much on his first day back at work. Middlesbrough's pounds 6m state-of-the-art training complex, complete with full-size indoor grass pitches, is more than a slight departure from the local college and prison facilities they formerly used. "Yeah, he did say it's a little bit different - in his amusing little Brazilian way," Robson remarked.

Other changes will no doubt become clear too when he finally gets back in a Boro shirt. For one thing, the jersey may not be his treasured No 10. That is occupied by the man who scored against Middlesbrough when Juninho made his debut, against Leeds at the Riverside in October 1995, and whose goal consigned Boro to relegation when the Brazilian played his last Premiership match at Elland Road in May 1997. Brian Deane is just one of the arrivals who have established Middlesbrough as a fair- to-middling Premiership team.

They were a fairly wrecked side when Juninho made his departure, in the wake of the FA Cup final capitulation to Ruud Gullit's Chelsea and the fateful last-day failure to beat Leeds that sealed their Premiership relegation fate. Fabrizio Ravanelli and Emerson were already looking to jump ship and the dressing-room was in turmoil. The tears Juninho shed at Elland Road and Wembley might have been for the end of the Great Boro Dream. Two years on, Steve Gibson's vision is stronger, though, like the boy from Brazil, a far from finished article.

"He can become the best player in the world," Pele ventured when Juninho first left for England. It will be a step back in the right direction if he can become simply the best at Boro this time.

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