Lest we forget: Boro’s adopted, beloved son Juninho

Date published: Wednesday 19th February 2020 1:10 - Sarah Winterburn

We take a look at players for whom we have a great deal of lingering fondness, sometimes for reasons unclear. We started with one Eyal Berkovic, moved on to Pierre van Hooijdonk and Laurent Robert, dallied with the flukey Paulo Wanchope and now we arrive at Juninho…


From where did he appear?
He cameth – presumably after someone on Teesside rubbed a magic lamp – from recent Copa Libertadores winners Sao Paulo in 1995. Where, I discovered, he once played two competitive games in one evening, first for the reserves in a South American competition against Sporting Cristal, then after a shower and a stiff brandy in the dressing room, against Gremio in the league. Made of stern stuff, this one.

I still consider it one of the most startling moments in the history of the Premier League that literally the summer after winning the Champions League with Juventus (and scoring in the final), Fabrizio Ravanelli – “the man”, I can unforgettably still hear Peter Brackley saying, “they call the white feather” – joined Middlesbrough, then only one season old in the top flight. So one might have thought it would be the Italian who would be hailed as the greatest Boro player of all time. After all, he scored a hat-trick on debut, another later on, he scored 31 goals across all competitions, he was a European legend and nonetheless, at 28, elected to join this unassuming club. But it definitely isn’t him.

Details on why Juninho chose to leave Sao Paulo during one of their most successful periods and head north on the A1 are sketchy. In the end, I deduce he wasn’t getting paid enough at Sao Paulo, and by his own admission was somewhat unfamiliar with his options. The Premier League in the early-mid 90s, when Man Utd’s juggernaut hadn’t fully begun to roll, when Arsene Wenger was still on his voyage of self-discovery in Japan, and when no English team had won the European Cup in years, was probably as familiar to Brazil as the Brazilian league was to England.  Middlesbrough clearly had a player budget. So Middlesbrough it is.


TOP TEN: The best Brazilians in the history of the Premier League


How did it go?
A proposition: there are two types of foreign players, certainly foreign attackers, who can be taken into the hearts of English fans. And they’re completely different types. Perhaps that suits this schizophrenic little country, that would never dream of claiming to be good at something without a heavy dose of self-deprecation, and yet which is sure in its bones it’s special in ways other countries aren’t; that is enslaved by rules, signs about rules, public announcements about looking at the signs about rules – and yet where we all hate being told what to think.

Category one: those who have a visibly quite lackadaisical attitude to ‘the team’, but who keep popping up with fancy play and important goals. Perhaps it speaks to the English love of not being seen to try too hard, or perhaps to something else. On this list, to varying degrees, are Nwankwo Kanu, Dimitar Berbatov and last week’s Paulo Wanchope. Eric Cantona doesn’t quite belong, but he certainly has one foot on it. They inflame the English desire for the exotic, an approach to football that goes beyond the grey meat and potatoes that occasionally make this grisly island a little tedious. But you play a risky game. If you don’t score special and important goals, if you don’t show that when it truly matters you’re there, there will be no limit to the fans’ vitriol.

But they will never be loved like the second category. We all know what we suspect, as English fans, in the grubbier reaches of our football soul: foreign players don’t care about football like we do. We are the inventors not only of the game – we’re not of course, just its rules – but also of true, honest-to-goodness passion for it. Not the flares and hurled pigs-heads kind, but the kind which doesn’t make a big song and dance and thus, the logic goes, is felt more deeply. No foreign player could be capable of caring about our club like we do. They are here for the good times, not the hard times.

The flip-side of this somewhat questionable logic, which automatically exists in a vulnerable state given its lack of foundation, is that when they show evidence they do indeed care, that this place means something to them, we fall hook line and sinker for it. They are loved even more, I think, than English players who show the same. Perhaps because they make the fans feel there’s something so special about their club that it can capture the heart of someone who has no reason to be attached. And they have to be amazing at football too. In this group we find Vincent Kompany, Thierry Henry, Roy Keane, Didier Drogba and of course – and I put him at the top of the list, because tangible rewards were abundant for the others – Juninho himself.

It’s so easy to know now that a small player who runs at defenders extremely fast, little legs working to a gallop and suddenly jagging the ball inside them, and back the other way, bouncing off tackles with a centre of gravity gifted by the gods, pulling the trigger a second before anyone else sees it coming – we all know now that one can definitely work. But at the time, a tiny attacker going up against the regularly agricultural approach of Premier League defenders was no-one’s idea of plausible. And Juninho was no Messi; the sculpting presence of La Masia was nowhere to be seen. He was, though, as per Messi, a born underdog, in a team which, thanks to all investment being dedicated to the top end of the pitch, only made him more of one. It would be so easy to have wafted like a cloud of perfume through that season, we’ve seen it a hundred times – contribute some flair, the odd nice goal, wait for the players who knew this country and this league better to grasp the reins.

In his first season, when Middlesborough, armed with the kind of names that make your eyelids feel inescapably heavy just read them – Steve Vickers, Phil Whelan, Alan Moore, Nigel Pearson preparing for his big moment of pinning that guy down in that headlock – trundled their way to 12th, including a for-the-fans eight games lost in a row from Boxing Day to February, I don’t honestly remember anything about him. Presumably relocating from Brazil to Middlesbrough isn’t the easiest transition, and he was possibly getting used to that. But also, simultaneously, it would seem, by a magical internal force beyond description, Middlesbrough was getting into his blood. We’re talking about a player who, in 2002, upon leaving Atletico Madrid, and with a newly minted World Cup in his luggage, chose to return to Teesside for his last big career play. We’re talking about a player who, when interviewed by FourFourTwo in 2018, said that if he had one regret it was not to stay in England in 1997. When he was a Brazil international and Boro had just been relegated.

Such are the beautiful oddities that football throws up. Or certainly used to, when the money was set Goldilocks-style just right so as to not turn most of its practitioners into avaricious pressure-addled weirdos.

So yeah, 1995/96, he passed me by. 1996/97, as per all fans of the Premier League, not so much. The stats are very decent, if hardly spectacular. Twelve league goals, and probably a few more than that in assists. There were of course moments, fancy ones, but that’s not it. It’s the propulsion of the man. I noticed it at the time, and am reminded of it in all the clips I’ve watched – ones where it feels like such a sweet bliss to know VAR isn’t about to step in and castrate my enjoyment; that Juninho plays football like a hungry dog who feels all the bones are kept in the penalty area.

For a club facing a relegation battle – and after winning one game between September 21 and January 11, that’s what this was going to be – nothing is more uplifting, nothing opens the doors to fan hearts more than seeing you have at least one player who will keep driving forward, trying to drag the team over the line. When that player does it in style, leaping to their feet after every fresh assault, finding the right pass, scoring goals away at Old Trafford, assisting everything good your team does in that game to snatch a crucial point as the jaws of relegation start to loom ahead of you; and when in the end, after pelting in every corner in the last game against Leeds like there was no more crucial human action, setting up your useless teammates for them to fluff it, scoring a goal, it was all for nothing, and you shed a few exhausted tears on the pitch, you become a tattoo on those hearts. If life was fair, you’d lead the team to at least one of the trophies in the FA and Coca-Cola Cup finals you’d helped them reach. But instead, life notices you have an egregiously lopsided team, flashes a bloodless smile and hands the trophies to Chelsea and Leicester.

Although honestly to me the most stirring episode of that entire season seems like Nigel Pearson giving a post-relegation interview where he comes across, even back then, like a Terminator bot if it was designed by a particularly joyless machinist from Scunthorpe, who requests in his low, chilling tone “the players be left to their own thoughts now”, which in his case is a dreadful thing to imagine. So down they went, and off Juninho went, seeking a profile that might get picked for France 98. But, as mentioned, he came back.


What was his defining moment?
Life is sweet though too. The team Juninho rejoined was a very different beast; in no danger of relegation, and featuring improbable names, the kind you see when stars fall upon hard times – Alen Boksic, Boudewijn Zenden, Gaizka Mendieta and Gareth Southgate, still chewing his lip and looking like a sixth-former trying to pluck up the courage to call his mum and ask if she’ll come pick him up. It was vaguely the team that before long would find itself in the UEFA Cup final getting absolutely annihilated by Sevilla. But first Juninho deserved something back, for how much of his blood he poured into the River Tees. I can think of nothing better than travelling to Highbury in the League Cup semi, in the season when Arsenal were making themselves statistically the best Premier League team ever and pinging in the winner: 1-0. The BBC report from the final in Cardiff has only one picture, of the diminutive Brazilian holding the only trophy in Middlesbrough’s history aloft and grinning.


How is he now?
Not without a trace of sadness around those soulful eyes. Given that his club career yielded little to reflect a talent that with the benefits of La Masia and a proper team could have been Messi-esque, you can understand that. But we’re not dealing with a run-of-the-mill player here, at all – when FourFourTwo asked what he would have been had he not been a footballer, he says “perhaps a painter”. He liked to draw. Try to hear Harry Kane coming out with that one. Ultimately, and the reason why beyond the traces he’s still a joyful presence, you get the sense Juninho wanted something to commit to, to put his body and soul on the line for, a cause that went beyond simple material success. And lo, unforgettably, Middlesbrough was it.


Toby Sprigings


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