Neil Cox: We lost our team spirit at Boro the summer Fab Rav & co. joined
When Neil Cox joined Middlesbrough in the summer of 1994, he could never have predicted he would end up playing alongside Champions League and World Cup winners.
A winger who had been successfully converted to full-back at hometown club Scunthorpe United, Cox had spent the previous three years at Aston Villa.
Though he would be dropping down from the Premiership – as it was known then – to Division One, Cox jumped at the opportunity to work under Boro manager Bryan Robson, having grown up idolising Captain Marvel as a Manchester United supporter.
Cox had turned down the offer of a new contract at Villa, worrying he would struggle for games under Ron Atkinson, who had replaced Jozef Venglos, the short-lived Czech coach who signed him.
“Ron brought something like nine players in that summer. I was only 19 and it didn’t seem like I would be playing as much. I needed a change, so I went up to Teeside and spoke to Boro,” Cox says.
The England Under-21 international was impressed with the club’s plans, which included a move to the 34,000-seater Riverside Stadium.
“As soon as I got up there, I knew it was the right place for me.”
‘Players would run through brick walls for him’
During his official unveiling, Cox was shocked to learn he was the club’s first million-pound signing.
“I had gone up there not knowing what the fee was. Obviously fees were changing and teams were paying more money, but it was still a shock and a big surprise for Boro that they were paying that much for a full-back.”
— Chris Pearson (@Boro_Brick_Road) April 9, 2020
Bombing on from full-back, Cox thrived on Teeside, helping the club earn an immediate return to the top flight and earning a place in the Division One team of the season for his efforts.
He credits both his manager and team-mates for much of that success.
“Robbo was a great man-manager,” Cox says. “He was honest with players, which was how it should be. Robbo told the truth about how he saw things, but then he also knew when to put an arm around you.
“Robson could give you a right good bollocking, but the next day it was done with, it was over. There were no grudges, nothing like that.
“As long as you worked hard for him, that was all he expected. Give 100%. And people did. Players would run through brick walls for him because they knew he did that as a player and he set certain standards.
“There were some big characters in that team,” Cox adds. “Nigel Pearson and Clayton Blackmore had joined and we also had players like John Hendrie and Graham Kavanagh.
“Only one team went up automatically that season. We were moving to a new stadium the following year so there was a lot of pressure.
“But there was a good team spirit. The players stuck together. Even when we didn’t play well, we ground out results. Robson always wanted us to be on the front foot and get stuck in, but we played good football too.”
‘A brilliant player, but an even better person’
That summer Boro spent big ahead of their top-flight return, splashing out £5.5million on Nick Barmby from Tottenham.
Barmby was an instant success, scoring on his debut in a 1-1 draw with Arsenal at Highbury that set the tone for a bright start to the season, with the Teessiders losing just one of their first eight games.
Soon after, Robson unveiled arguably his biggest transfer coup yet with Boro paying £4.75million to bring Juninho to the Riverside. The South American was an immediate hit with fans and players.
📆 ON THIS DAY 📆#OTD in 1995, Middlesbrough announced the signing of Juninho for £4.75m.
A reminder of his arrival at the Riverside. The Little Fella wore a suit three sizes too big for him, was treated to a samba band, and had a game of keepy-uppy with Bryan Robson. pic.twitter.com/rbHuDJkQrW
— WeLoveBetting (@WeLoveBettingUK) August 25, 2019
“Juninho was a brilliant player, but an even better person,” Cox says. “He got on with everybody. Laughed and joked around. Socialised with everybody too. If the club organised a day at the races, he would be the first one there. Anything we did, he was part of it.”
On the pitch, the Brazilian also added a new dimension to Boro’s attacking talent.
“He made us a better team,” Cox says. “Gave us that extra bit of spark going forward. In order to stand a chance in the Premiership, we needed to create more chances and that’s what he did.”
Despite a post-Christmas slump, Boro finished a credible 12th, well clear of the relegation zone. It was a good time to be at the club.
“You couldn’t go anywhere without getting noticed,” Cox says. “When you went out in Middlesbrough, even if it was just to the local shop, people would be talking to you about how it was going at the club.
“There was just a positive atmosphere around the community. It was a great place to live and people enjoyed that buzz, just being in the top half of the league.”
‘Football was changing’
That summer, Middlesbrough returned to the transfer market in search of reinforcements.
With England still basking in the success of Euro ‘96 and the landmark Bosman ruling opening up a wealth of recruitment possibilities, clubs across the English top-flight began searching across the continent and beyond for talent.
Yet few, if any, of the new arrivals matched Middlesbrough’s when it came to making a statement.
Fresh from scoring in Juventus’s Champions League final win over Ajax, Fabrizio Ravanelli arrived in Teesside on a bumper contract. He was joined by Emerson, from Porto, with Barmby leaving for Everton.
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From the outside, the arrivals heralded an exciting new dawn, but Cox sensed a different kind of shift.
“Things in the dressing room began to change a little bit,” he says. “It wasn’t so much of a team thing any more. It became more of an individual thing and it started to get to everyone in the football club.”
Cox cites Ravanelli as an example of the shift in attitudes, contrasting his approach to that of the Brazilians at the club.
“Fabrizio would often train on his own with his own fitness coach, whereas Emerson just got stuck in. He was a great character and really loved the English mentality.
“Fabrizio kept out of the way but when we needed him on a Saturday he would be there. He was doing a lot of fitness training. He had his own chef who he would take with him to away games. But that was the way football was changing.
“I’m not having a go at Ravanelli – he scored a lot of goals for us – but he was someone who would look after himself rather than focus on how the team was doing.”
Middlesbrough nevertheless enjoyed a fine start to the season, with the Italian bagging an opening day hat-trick on his debut in a thrilling 3-3 draw with Liverpool.
“The place suddenly started to lift and the expectations of the football club did too,” Cox says.
Though they had to wait until early September, Boro bagged their first league win in style with a 4-1 demolition of West Ham that Cox ranks among his favourite games from that campaign.
“It could have been nine or 10. Harry Redknapp said we were one of the best teams they had played all season.”
Wins against Coventry and Everton followed, but Boro’s impressive early-season form soon began to slip away with the Teessiders’s defensive frailties becoming apparent.
“We were very open and would push forward and play three at the back,” Cox says. “But at times, defensively, we were all over the place because a lot of the attacking players wouldn’t track back so we were defending with six.
“It became more about scoring than defending. At times it worked out and we won 3-1 and other times we got beat 4-0.”
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Soon teams began to suss out Middlesbrough’s attacking approach.
“They would let us come on to them and then catch us on the counter-attack,” Cox says.
“Teams would also man-mark Juninho and sit deep to stop Ravanelli getting in behind the defence as much. We were a good side, but teams were starting to do their homework.”
While the goals still flowed, Boro went on a 12-game winless run that only ended on Boxing Day with victory over Everton.
‘They made a mistake’
Just days earlier, on December 21, Robson had also made the fateful decision to call-off a league fixture with Blackburn at short notice, citing an outbreak of flu in the squad.
It was a decision that landed Boro in court and eventually a three-point deduction.
“If the club looks back at it – which they probably have done many, many times – they would realise they made a mistake,” Cox says.
“We could have got a team together. People were unwell, but there were about 16 of us on the training ground. Gordon McQueen also had a very good under-23 side that could have played.
“Some of the players were surprised because we trained that day and then it got cancelled. We ended up one game behind and always having to play catch up which was not ideal.”
While Middlesbrough were struggling for wins in the league, they were flying in both domestic cup competitions, eventually reached the finals of both. It was both a blessing and a curse.
“The games just started piling up and the boys were dropping like flies,” Cox says. “Players getting injured and everyone feeling the pressure. It wasn’t easy.”
Middlesbrough still went into the League Cup final confident they could see off Martin’s O’Neill’s Leicester.
“We had played them a couple of weeks before the final and beat them 3-1 at Filbert Street. But they approached the final in a completely different way, came and did a job man-marking Juninho.
“We were still the better side on the day, but they stopped us from playing.”
Boro led 1-0 deep in extra-time at Wembley, but a late Emile Heskey goal earned the Foxes a replay at Hillsborough, where they eventually triumphed 1-0.
Looking back now, Cox cites the defeat as the catalyst for Middlesbrough’s eventual relegation.
“If we had won the League Cup we probably would have stayed up,” he says. “We would have gone into the next few games with a bit of confidence. But as soon as we lost, it became tough. There was no time to think about what was going on because there were so many games.
“We were trying to stay in the Premiership and having to go to all these places like Old Trafford to try and get results while also trying to win the team a cup for the first time.
“Plus, there was the court case in the background. The pressure got to everyone, the players, the staff, even the boardroom.”
Come the end of the season, Boro were relegated, having finished two points off safety. Even if they had played and lost the game with Blackburn, they would have stayed up. Cox refuses to place the blame solely on that, however.
“We had got a lot of top players in,” he says. “Maybe almost too many though because it stopped being the team that had got Middlesbrough promoted and achieved a mid-table finish in the Premier League. It was different.
“A better squad but a worse team because we didn’t stick together in the same way. People looked after themselves.”
‘A little bit of handbags’
Frustrations eventually boiled over on the eve of the FA Cup final against Chelsea, when Ravanelli confronted Cox over a newspaper interview the full-back had given in which he said Mikkel Beck should start ahead of the Italian because he was scoring goals and was, crucially, fit.
“Ravanelli had not been seen,” Cox says. “He had gone back to Italy because he had a sore hamstring. He’d not played the last game before the final. He came back from Italy and said he was fit. But no one had seen him train.”
Cox adds: “Rav wasn’t happy, but it wasn’t me having a dig. I just thought we needed to go with the fittest team in order to give ourselves the best chance of winning the FA Cup – for the fans.
“He took offence to it and decided to start throwing a few haymakers and that’s how it started really. We had a bit of a discussion about it – a little bit of handbags, really.”
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Cox had been struggling with injury that ruled him out of the final. He watched on as his suspicions were proven correct; while Ravanelli was the club’s top scorer with 31 goals in all competitions that season, he was clearly carrying an injury.
“In the first 10 minutes he didn’t make a single run,” Cox recalls. “He, maybe, made one run in the entire final before he had to come off.”
By then Boro had made the worst possible start, conceding after just 43 seconds despite being briefed before the game on Roberto Di Matteo’s penchant for running through the middle and striking the ball early.
“When you go 1-0 down that early it’s a long way back from there. We had played 54 games that season.
“Ravanelli went off early and Robbie Mustoe had to go off, we were struggling with injuries and it was tough. The best team on the day won but we didn’t do ourselves justice.
“I felt for players like Juninho and Emerson. I felt a little bit for Ravanelli too. He wanted to play in the FA Cup final. He wanted to play in what was one of the biggest games in the world.
“He wasn’t a nasty character. He just wanted to do things his own way and wasn’t involved in the team. I’m not sure he had done that at Juventus, but because he was this big-money signing, he wanted to do that. It upset a few people in the camp.
“We would be going to away games and he [Ravanelli] would be going in his car while we were all sat on the bus. We’d be eating fish and chips together and he’d be off somewhere with his full-time chef. Our players weren’t used to that.”
Cox has few regrets about confronting Ravanelli, though, and, in the years since, has found plenty of team-mates who agreed with his assessment.
“I signed for that football club, not just for me,” he says. “We needed to give it a right good go in the cup final for the fans. Show that we were a good side. It would have been great to go back to Middlesbrough with a first trophy for the club.
“That was just the way it was. I said my bit. It wasn’t having a go at him; it was just me trying to get my team a medal.”
Cox left for Bolton Wanderers that summer but, like his idol Robson, holds no grudges with Ravanelli or any of his old Boro team-mates.
“Mikkel Beck has sorted an NHS charity day out and all the old team from that era are going to be there. We’ll have a game and have a beer and put a few smiles on faces. It’s all water under the bridge.”
He also retains fond memories of his time at Teeside and the games he played at the Riverside.
“The place was rocking every time we played. Everyone used to love coming to watch us.”