Teesside samba salutes new idol

Greg Wood sees the Middlesbrough faithful bid Juninho a huge welcome

There was a lot of diarrhoea in Middlesbrough last night," the taxi driver said as he turned a corner and the Riverside Stadium, a monument to optimism amid the derelict dockland, came into view. He let it hang for 10 seconds before he explained. "At any rate," he said, "there's a lot of kids off sick from school this morning."

In fact, many local schools had simply accepted that the first public appearance of Juninho, Boro's new boy from Brazil, was unfair competition, and closed until lunchtime. Nor was it just the children who turned out to pay their respects. Jim Brittain, a supporter for 60 years, insisted that he had never known anything like it, as 4,000 fans waited to meet the instant local hero. Young or old, all wore the same expression, one of delight and excitement, mixed with an equal part of disbelief.

Juninho, too, looked a little startled as he peered over the balcony of the directors' box and acknowledged the cheers. But then, he knew little of Middlesbrough when he signed his contract, and so even less about the club's troubled history. He could not be expected to appreciate that the eager upturned faces had, until two seasons ago, been scarred by the worry lines of decades of underachievement.

As the Stockton and Billingham College samba band pounded out its beat on an assortment of empty barrels and dustbin lids, some regulars may have reflected that it is not so long since it was the team that was playing rubbish.

That there was anyone there at all, far less 4,000 people, was a moving testament to a football fan's resilience in the face of extreme hardship. "This was the first club to pay pounds 1,000 for a player," Brittain said, "but for years all the directors were interested in was buying second-rate players, and penny-pinching to put money in their own pockets. We were starved of top-class football, but now suddenly the ambition is there again. There's a euphoria gripping Teesside like nothing ever before."

Little wonder, then, that the club shop has already sold out of Brazilian shirts, or that several fans had rummaged through their cupboards to find sombreros which owed more to Marbella than the mardi gras. And when Juninho finally walked out on to the soft green carpet of the Riverside pitch, you could only forgive the children who broke free of the stewards to mob their new idol.

Yet it could have been rather embarrassing. Much had been said about Juninho's slight build and lack of inches, but the truth became apparent only when Middlesbrough's star signing, the millionaire who will be paid pounds 13,000 a week, was briefly in danger of being trampled by an exuberant gang of 12-year-olds. Juninho's English is, as yet, almost non-existent, but when he begins the course of lessons which has been organised by the club his teacher will safely be able to ignore "over 'ere son, on the 'ead".

As he stood at Bryan Robson's side, at 5ft 51/2 almost six inches shorter than his new manager and weighing in at just nine stone, you thought of Vinnie Jones and offered up a prayer for the waif from Sao Paulo. Robson, though, does not share the concern. "I saw him play when I was in Brazil against a team which got a real beast of a man to man-mark him," he said. "He got away with murder, things which you'd never see in England. Our league is no tougher than the one in Brazil."

A question about the British weather was just as predictable, but the answer slightly less convincing. "He's played when it's been minus degrees, and the winters here don't seem to be as cold as they were." As far as British football is concerned, then, the greenhouse effect is a good thing.

Juninho himself spoke only occasionally, through his interpreter, and quietly, as though embarrassed by all the fuss. He likes England. He was flattered when Robson expressed his interest in him. He is not worried about his place in the Brazilian team, and playing in England may even help, because there are many fewer matches. And it was easy to believe him when he seemed to be saying, with unusual humility for a superstar, that he signed for Middlesbrough because they were the first team to ask.

If Juninho really is the thoughtful, well-adjusted 22-year-old he appears to be, the Premiership will hold no fears for him. Yet whether or not he eventually proves worthy of all the money and adulation, one thing remains certain. The long-suffering fans of Middlesbrough FC richly deserved their chance to samba on a Tuesday morning in October.

n The Football Association has cleared Middlesbrough of any irregularities in the pounds 4.75m transfer of Juninho, following allegations that an unlicensed agent was involved.

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