Juninho aims to end Boro's wait for glory

'The first season is always difficult. We need time because we are South American'
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The Independent Football

"And for Boro: Schwarzer, Riggott, Southgate, Ehiogu, Queudrue, Juuuniiinhoo". Mark Page, a minor Radio One DJ in the years after the nation's factories stopped for "Our Tune" but before Sara Cox imagined breakfast listeners wanted to know whether the Queen Mother smelled of wee, is now an announcer at the Riverside Stadium.

Page's voice used to drive Bryan Robson to distraction since his ruminations on the half-time score or his list of Boro birthdays were piped straight into the dressing-room while Robson was hurriedly trying to reorganise his midfield. But in one respect Page is absolutely right. Juninho needs to be pronounced with eight vowels.

If you asked half-a-dozen Middlesbrough fans, especially those who have no memory of desperate afternoons spent on the Holgate End at Ayresome Park, to name the club's greatest player, most would choose the little boy from Brazil.

In the words of Gary Gill, a professional in the days when Middlesbrough dissolved into bankruptcy in front of "sparse and hostile crowds": "No one will see a better footballer than him. He is the Wilf Mannion of our era."

Juninho is extolled as much for what he represented as for what he achieved. When he jogs out of the tunnel at the Millennium Stadium for Sunday's Carling Cup final against Bolton, it will be alongside Boudewijn Zenden, Gaizka Mendieta, George Boateng, Gareth Southgate, Joseph-Desiré Job. When in the autumn of 1995 he ran out to play Leeds accompanied by the hastily convened Billingham Samba band with many in the crowd wearing commemorative sombreros, the most exotic footballer Boro possessed was Jan-Aage Fjortoft.

Ravanelli, Emerson, Merson and Ince came later but Juninho was the first. Also, he returned to Teesside not once but twice. Middlesbrough, the team who famously have never won a major trophy, were always a club people were anxious to leave. To general incredulity, voiced most raucously by the Evening Standard, he turned down Arsenal to come here.

"I didn't expect to come back the second time, let alone the third," he laughed. "I'm surprised when people ask me about the future because you never know. I can't tell you where I will be in two years' time. I'm happy to be here now and reach another final. It means as much as the World Cup final because I have trusted this club since I first came. I trusted Bryan Robson and I could see what the Middlesbrough mission was since my first day here. We have to win a title [he uses the word "title" for "trophy"], so yes it's like the World Cup for me. The World Cup was excellent, but is it enough for me? No.

"With Middlesbrough I always said I wanted to win a title; that was the objective of my career. Just because you have won the World Cup doesn't mean your objective changes. We have to forget the defeats. The side is much more solid than it was seven years ago. It has much more experience."

Juninho is the only man in Steve McClaren's side who played in both the League and FA Cup finals of 1997, the year Middlesbrough were pursued by both glory and disaster. In the first final, against Leicester, they endured a late equaliser from Emile Heskey and lost the replay at Hillsborough. In the FA Cup final with Chelsea, played when Boro were already relegated, they fatally went a goal down after 42 seconds.

Juninho's claim to greatness is thinly founded. It is based on his displays in that one epic season of 1996-97, the campaign which encompassed two finals and a relegation, summed up by Neil Cox and Fabrizio Ravanelli, who epitomised the opposite poles of Robson's squad, fighting at the team hotel before boarding the bus to Wembley.

This time the chief source of disagreement is whether the team wear red ties (as McClaren would prefer) or pink (which the team have chosen).

Like many South Americans, from Juan Pablo Angel at Aston Villa to Kleberson at Manchester United, Juninho found adapting to an English game awkward. His first season, by his own admission, was undistinguished and in neither of his two returns has he captured the form of the second.

Upon relegation he was sold for £12m to Atletico Madrid, where he broke his ankle and fell out of favour with first Arrigo Sacchi and then Claudio Ranieri, who two years later loaned him back to Middlesbrough.

"It was not a good idea to come back. When you are on loan, people treat you differently," he says of his first return in 1999. "I didn't find a good atmosphere at my second spell here. I should have gone to Brazil because then the support would have been there from my family. I lost a year when maybe I should have gone to Brazil to get my football back."

Perhaps those who criticise Kleberson's sometimes insipid displays for Manchester United should be patient. "The first season is always difficult; we need more time because we are South American," Juninho said. "We need time to show our best. That's happening to Kleberson and it will happen to others who come - not just Brazilians but South American players. Gilberto Silva was the exception because he looked at home at the first game, but in my first season I had all sorts of problems with the weather, the way that English football is played. The speed of the game, the condition of the pitch - in Brazil you need four or five touches to control the ball - the weather, it was all different."

As he talked, the pitch at the Riverside was white and the Cleveland Hills were smeared with snow.

His relationship with McClaren is not nearly as warm as it was with Robson. The decision to sign Juninho for a third spell in the summer of 2002 was made by the chairman, Steve Gibson, rather than the manager. McClaren, who had exposed himself by flirting openly with Leeds, manoeuvring to become David O'Leary's replacement, was in no position to argue.

Almost immediately, Juninho wrecked his knee ligaments in a pre-season fixture, and in this campaign he first drifted out of the side before drifting back in because of the weight of injuries. Only recently, in the victories at Old Trafford and in the Carling Cup semi-final at Highbury, has he dazzled as he once did.

"I am happy with the way we perform in away games when we hold the ball and pass it from the back. When we concentrate and take the ball down and play good football, we can beat big clubs like Manchester United and Arsenal. But when we try to compete physically, like we did against Newcastle, we can lose games."

Before, when there was Juninho alone or perhaps with just Ravanelli for support, he felt the responsibility dreadfully. Now, with the quality more evenly spread, you might expect him to be more relaxed; but no.

"I love big matches when you play with the pressure. I have adapted to that because in Brazil when you put on your shirt you put on pressure because you have to win every game. If you want to be a winner, you have to play with that."

How a boy from Brazil became a folk hero on Teesside

November 1995: Signs from hometown club Sao Paulo for £4.75m. Makes debut in 1-1 draw against Leeds. Helps Middlesbrough to finish in 12th place.

April 1997: Part of the Middlesbrough side which loses League Cup final 1-0 to Leicester City in a tense replay at Hillsborough.

May 1997: Cannot prevent Middlesbrough from being relegated to the First Division, despite scoring 12 Premiership goals. A 1-1 draw at Leeds, in which he scores, seals their fate on the final day of the season. Juninho sinks to the turf in tears. A week later at Wembley, Boro lose FA Cup final to Chelsea 2-0.

July 1997: Leaves Boro to join Atletico Madrid, citing the need for top-level football in order to be selected for the 1998 World Cup finals in France. Ironically, he breaks his leg and thus misses the tournament.

September 1999: Rejoins Middlesbrough, now back in the Premiership, on loan from Atletico. Makes his second debut versus Chesterfield in a League Cup tie, helping the Teessiders to a 2-1victory.

May 2000: Fails to reproduce form he displayed in his first spell at the club, scoring four goals during his loan period. Boro finish season 12th in the Premiership.

Summer 2002: Wins the World Cup with Brazil and then returns to Boro for a third spell when Steve McClaren pays Atletico £3.8m for his services. Snaps cruciate ligament in pre-season friendly.

March 2003: Marks return from injury with a goal in 1-1 Premiership draw with Everton at The Riverside.

Plays nine Premiership games to help Middlesbrough finish season in 11th place.

2004: Middlesbrough reach their third League Cup final in seven years, this time against Bolton Wanderers. Juninho has scored seven goals so far this season in the Premiership, including two in Boro's stunning 3-2 victory against Manchester United at Old Trafford a fortnight ago.