In 1986, Middlesbrough found themselves in the third tier of English football, and were forced to play their first home game of the season at Hartlepool’s Victoria Ground, with bailiffs having closed Ayresome Park’s gates due to huge debts that were owed by the club.
If you had told fans then, that 10 years later, they would be signing one of the world’s top strikers, you would have been locked in a padded cell with your arms tied in a straitjacket.
But that is exactly what happened when Fabrizio Ravanelli was unveiled at the Riverside by chairman Steve Gibson.
It was Gibson’s vision for Boro’ that convinced Ravanelli — nicknamed the White Feather thanks to his silver-grey hair — to sign for the club, and help realise the chairman’s dream
Of course, that season did not follow the script to the letter, with the club ending the season relegated. But it was not all low points, with Ravanelli a joy to watch, and his goals helped the Teessiders make it to the League Cup Final and their first ever FA Cup Final.
Unfortunately, Boro’ won neither, but it was Ravanelli who scored against Leicester at Wembley in extra time during the League Cup final, who looked to have given them first trophy, only for Emile Heskey to equalise in injury-time of extra-time to force a replay, which the Foxes went on to win.
The season may have ended in triple disappointment for Middlesbrough, but the memories of Ravanelli bearing down on goal, and wheeling away in celebration, is something fans will be able to tell their grandchildren in years to come “I was there!”.
His spell only lasted a single year, although looking back, it felt like he was there much longer, such was his impact on the club and the supporters.
He scored 16 Premier League goals, seeing him finish as the league’s joint sixth top-scorer, alongside Newcastle’s Les Ferdinand, and 31 in total for the season — not bad going for a team that finished second bottom.
His debut was memorable – a hat-trick against Liverpool, in a 3-3 draw. It was an unbelieveable start to an unbelievable year for the player.
His first Boro’ goal from the penalty spot was a prelude of what was to come.
His second was a sliding tap-in, his third a scuffed effort into the corner.
The White Feather had announced his arrival, and Boro fans had a new hero to adore.
His hat-trick against Derby County, in Boro’s 6-1 demolition was another highlight, and probably the club’s greatest Premier League performance.
Bizarrely, the game started with the prolific striker missing an absolute sitter — an open goal from just six yards out — when he slid to tap in, but the ball somehow skewed wide, and it appeared as if it would be one of those days.
But what happened after, helped cement Ravanelli’s place as one of the best strikers to ever wear the Boro’ shirt.
His first goal was thanks to sheer strength, when he held off a defender to slot home, left-footed from 18 yards out, and was the start of a fantastic second half for both Boro’ and Ravanelli.
His second, was a tap in with his right foot, after the Derby ‘keeper spilled his own initial shot — the celebration one to remember, as he ran over the effects microphone, picked it up and started singing and dancing into it… much like the jubilant home fans in front of him!
His third was typical of the Italian goal wizard, seeing hi sidestep around the keeper to pop the ball into an empty net.
In many ways, this game summed up Ravanelli: A showman; a predator; a frustration; and a hero.
Speaking last year about his move to the Riverside, he admitted that he wished he had remained at Juventus, but having gone, added that his season at Boro’ has a special place in his heart.
“I never should have left [Juventus], now I know that, but at that time I was in a very special mood, I was convinced to be so strong, to be able to leave Juventus and do even better.
“But I loved everything about my season with Boro.
“I scored 31 goals…not bad for the first season in a new championship.”
And he acknowledged where they are now, and always hoped they can reach their former heights, such is his feeling for the club and its fans.
“I am sure they will get back to the highest levels very soon. C’mon Boro!”
When you look back at his year there, with the likes of Emerson and Juninho behind him, how they went down is hard to fathom.
But relegation or not, ask any Boro’ fan, and you will not find many who do not look back on Ravanelli’s year without a smile on their faces.
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