Riverside knocked down with a White Feather

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The Independent Online
When Ruud Gullit was approached by Middlesbrough last summer by all accounts he scratched his dreadlocks and said he had never heard of the place. Fabrizio Ravanelli's response 12 months later was somewhat different. Middlesbrough, of course, has long had a special meaning to Italian football folk - rather like Belo Horizonte has to the English, or Hereford to the Toon Army.

Ravanelli was not even born when Pak Doo Ik, North Korea's inside left, slid the ball into the Holgate End goal at Ayresome Park to inflict the humiliating defeat which sent Italy's 1966 World Cup squad home to bombardment by tomatoes at Genoa airport. Like all proud Italians, however, he learned to wince at the mention of the M-word, that sometime scene of national suffering somewhere in northern England.

"I am glad they have moved to a new stadium," Ravanelli said on the day he announced he would be leaving the European Cup holders, Juventus, to join a club whose only trophy success, with the exception of second-class championships, remains the winning of the Anglo Scottish Cup in 1976. This afternoon, down at the Riverside, the silver-haired striker will play for the first time at the modern home of the Middlesbrough club that has invested in his silver-winning talent.

Internazionale provide home from home opposition for the man known in his homeland as la penna bianca, the white feather, in a match held for the benefit of Willie Maddren, the former Middlesbrough stalwart who suffers from motor-neurone disease. It seems a particularly apposite meeting of Boro past and present. When Maddren was manager 10 years ago his highest paid player earned pounds 350 a week and he drove his team to Easter Road for a pre-season friendly against Hibernian in a transit van.

The newly-monied Middlesbrough have paid a pounds 7m fee and a reputed pounds 25,000 a week (after tax) for the white feather in their cap because they want to cast off the cloak of anonymity for good. Newcastle and Sunderland may have been trophy-less companions in the North-east hotbed of late, but at least their most recent claims to national honours do not date back to a smallpox epidemic in Victorian days.

An outbreak on Teesside caused the club's vital match against Thornaby to be played 14 miles away in the Cleveland Hills at Brotton. Victory earned Middlesbrough a place in the Amateur Cup final of 1898. They won the trophy for a second time and were paraded through the town with what reports from the time describe as "a gay brass band" when they returned from Crystal Palace with the cup.

Bands of all persuasions would be on the streets if Ravanelli and Boro's Brazilian boys managed to bring a non-antique trophy to Teesside. Whether Bryan Robson's personal league of nations can prosper remains to be seen. Having finished last season 12th in the Premiership, a less than comfortable four points clear of relegation, a realistic target, aside from cup runs, would be the progress the club's first qualification for Europe would represent - or a place in the top six, which was last achieved in 1951 under the managerial guidance of another former England captain, David Jack.

Much, of course, will depend on whether Ravanelli can deliver. Nick Barmby was Middlesbrough's top scorer with nine goals last season. Something around the 30 mark from the robust son of Perugia would be considered value for money - within the Riverside at least. A home encounter against the precocious talent of Liverpool next Saturday will be a demanding introduction to the Premiership, but the promising thing for Middlesbrough is that the the 27-year-old has come with a point to prove as well as a fortune to collect.

Ravanelli has not disguised the fact that he did not want to leave Turin and the crowd that adored him in the Stadio delle Alpi. He could not hide his tears, in any case, while saluting the 25,000 Juventus fans who watched his debut in Middlesbrough's 2-1 defeat against his former club in Cesena on Wednesday night. "I did not think Juventus would sell me," he said. "That they did hurt and saddened me. I thought I was going to be made captain this season and I was looking forward to defending the European Cup.

"I have always been a Juve fan and at one point I would have been happy to sign a contract for life. But once I was told the two clubs had agreed a fee I knew it was time to leave. It was easy to choose between a team which made me feel wanted and one which would entertain selling me."

It was ironically on the night Ravanelli hit the zenith of his time with the Turin club, in Rome's Stadio Olimpico on 22 May, that it became clear Juventus might entertain such a proposition. Having seized upon the moment's indecision between Frank de Boer and Edwin van der Sar to score the opening goal in the European Cup final, the white feather was less than tickled to be called to the bench. He swore and gestured at Marcello Lippi and, though he issued a public apology, his number really was up.

Despite that brilliant opportunist goal, and others like it in European competition in recent years, Ravanelli has his critics. They point to the fact that until last year he was regarded as a sub, although of the Fairclough-esque super variety, that he won his first international cap only last year, and that his Euro '96 performance against the Czech Republic at Anfield did little to prevent the azzurri returning home early fearing the tomato treatment.

His new boss, however, has no doubts about his pedigree. "Fabrizio is one of the best goalscorers in the world," Robson maintained. "He is direct and positive and he complements the players around him. He reminds me of Alan Shearer."

At less than half the price, Robson and his millionaire chairman, Steve Gibson, will consider they have got a bargain if Ravanelli's trademark celebration becomes as familiar a sight at the Riverside as Shearer's typically restrained acknowledgement of another goal rolling off his personal production line at St James' Park. Come May the white feather might not be pulling the red top over his head simply to shut out Teesside's distinctive industrial air.

He might be savouring the sweet smell of success in a Boro shirt.