Remarkable tale of a club transformed

Nine years ago Middlesbrough nearly went bankrupt. Now they've hit the big time. Ian Potts reports
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The Independent Online
In August they persuaded Nick Barmby to join them for pounds 5m, by September they had opened a new ground and in October they signed what their manager described as "the most sought-after player in the world". Not bad for a club that nearly went out of business nine years ago.

Middlesbrough Football Club are truly a club transformed, and while it would be ridiculous to ascribe this extraordinary change in fortune to one man, there can be no doubt that Steve Gibson has been crucial to his club's success.

At 37 the Middlesbrough chairman is younger, by a year, than Bryan Robson, the manager who has rightly received many of the plaudits. Gibson even fits the identikit of the dashing, self-made multi-millionaire, rising from a teenage stint on a Youth Training Scheme at the nearby ICI rail distribution depot to become the owner of a haulage business which has reputedly put pounds 50m in his bank account. A spell as a Labour councillor merely adds a splash of colour.

For 11 seasons he has taken his seat in the Middlesbrough directors' box. That the seat is now in the purpose-built, pounds 16m Cellnet Riverside ground, and that the football on view is of a quality to match, is largely of Gibson's doing.

"The people of Teesside have suffered 120 years of mediocrity," he memorably pointed out. "We've had great individual players, but we've never had a great team. We've had 60-odd seasons in the top flight, but we've never been beyond the sixth round of the FA Cup - and we've never been close to Europe."

A harsh summary of a century's endeavour, but indisputably true. Certainly few would have quibbled with Middlesbrough's status as the north-east's "other" team 10 years ago, when Gibson's first season on the board ended with him taking over the reins at the age of 27 with the club in the old Third Division for only the second time in their history.

With only a few months' grounding he was catapulted into the chair in April, 1986, on the resignation of Alf Duffield, whose backing had helped keep the club afloat over the previous 12 months. Within a month the players had moved out of Ayresome Park and the liquidator had moved in, to deal with the estimated debt of pounds 1.8m.

Gibson sacked the remaining board members and set about forming a consortium comprising ICI, Scottish and Newcastle Breweries and London-based fan Henry Moszkowicz, which pulled off the rescue act minutes before the Football League's deadline of 24 August, 1986.

Having been instrumental in keeping the club alive, he handed control to the ICI representative Colin Henderson, and for the next seven years watched the club yo-yo between the First and Second Divisions. Under Bruce Rioch they climbed from the Third Division to the First in successive seasons, before abruptly returning to the Second.

Their residency in the Premier League was just as brief in 1992/93. By the following September, Gibson was back at the helm, and within nine months, having watched Sir John Hall's money-no-object brief succeed so spectacularly up the road at Newcastle, he decided it was time to act. Fortunately for him - and for Middlesbrough - Robson shared his vision.

"From the start, Bryan challenged us to show we wanted the best, like him," said Gibson, who gambled on the former England's skipper's knowledge and footballing nous - as Hall had with Kevin Keegan - making up for the lack of managerial experience. The hard cash which followed (pounds 1.3m for Jan Age Fjortoft, pounds 5.25m for Nick Barmby, and roughly the same again for Juninho) is an indication of how high Middlesbrough are now setting their sights.