Stars turn in for the new season

Simon Turnbull visits Middlesbrough as preparation for the Premiership begins
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The Independent Online
Only two weeks have passed since Jurgen Klinsmann made off with the silverware after gatecrashing football's grand homecoming party. England is still mourning the Henri Delauney Cup that got away. But already the scheming has begun to pinch the domestic game's crown jewel. After Euro 96, Premiership 96-97 is nigh.

That much was evident on Friday lunchtime down by the Riverside, where Steve Bruce hoisted high last season's trophy on 5 May. The team coach pulled up outside Middlesbrough's pounds 16m home, a space-age contrast to the grim industrial landscape that surrounds it. And down stepped one of their boys from Brazil.

It hardly seems two years since Branco scored in the penalty shoot-out at the Pasadena Rose Bowl. A crowd of 94,194 watched that World Cup final; on Friday morning just two inmates of Kirklevington Open Prison, some 10 miles west of Middlesbrough, had witnessed Branco's return to training as one of the old hands among Boro's burgeoning international brigade. Emerson and Mikkel Beck had been doing pre-season porridge since Tuesday; Fabrizio Ravanelli, Bryan Robson's third summer signing, does not arrive from Turin until next Sunday.

Two months before Branco struck gold in the USA, Middlesbrough beat Barnsley 5-0 at Ayresome Park to go 10th in the First Division. They were watched by 6,368. Two years later they are prime movers in the Premiership's league of nations. The waiting list for their 30,000 season tickets has 3,000 names on it. Their boat has come in.

Steve Gibson is the man responsible for the transformation. His one ambition in life was to play for the club he worshipped from Ayresome's Holgate End; instead, having made a fortune,he wants to help his beloved Boro win some silverware as chairman. With the exception of four second-class championships, the Anglo-Scottish Cup is the only trophy Middlesbrough have won as a professional club. That is why Gibson appointed Bryan Robson manager two years ago and why Juninho has not been the only notable legionnaire lured to Teesside.

Middlesbrough were only five points off a relegation place last season. The pounds 4m they have spent on Emerson and the pounds 7m investment in Ravanelli, not to mention their rocketing wage bill, is the cost of keeping up with the Joneses - never mind success - in the Premiership. Each club has had a pounds 9m slice of the new Sky television deal and, with five weeks to go before the big kick-off, some pounds 50m has already been spent in the transfer market.

Even the football world's elite have their price. Ravanelli and Gianluca Vialli have forsaken the European Cup winners of two months ago for clubs that finished the English season 12th and 11th. Ravanelli confessed his only knowledge of Middlesbrough was as the place where Italy lost to North Korea in the 1966 World Cup; now it is the place where he will pick up pounds 27,000 a week, pounds 26,686 more than the average wage in the town.

Ruud Gullit scoffed last summer when Robson made a bid for him. "I've never even heard of Middlesbrough," he said. Nobody was laughing last week when Batistuta and Maldini were mentioned as possible items on the Boro shopping list. Few would be surprised if Elvis lined up alongside Ravanelli when Internazionale come to town for Middlesbrough's one pre- season engagement at the Riverside.

Manchester United, who carried the trophy home from Teesside on 5 May, started preparing for the defence of it with a training session behind closed doors at the Cliff on Friday. The Middlesbrough squad were into the fourth of their 10-day programme behind bars at Kirklevington and Viv Anderson, in charge of the squad in Robson's absence, was happy. "We've got ever y reason to look forward to the new season," he said.

Peter Kirkley looked like he did not know whether to laugh or cry. Middlesbrough's assistant youth development officer has spent a lifetime unearthing local gems. Peter Beardsley and Steve Bruce were two of his discoveries at the Wallsend boys' club. His Newcastle youth team of six years ago featured Lee Clark, Steve Watson, Alan Thompson and Robbie Elliott.

"I never thought I would see players like Ravanelli and Juninho at Middlesbrough," he said. "Whether it will help the young lads in this country only time is going to tell. We've got a group of young lads here now as good as the team I had at Newcastle. They look at Branco and can't believe they're part of the same set-up. But the football world has become so small."

The only boundary left for Middlesbrough is the final frontier behind which trophies lie. "That's our target now," Kirkley said. "Who knows? We might get one before Newcastle."