• Rob Fletcher

Boro Mag: Alive and Kicking - Boro Arrive In The Premier League

Sky Sports, Monday Night Football, Super Sunday, cheerleaders, sumo suits, fireworks and Richard Keys in garish pastel jackets, welcome to the inaugural season of the F.A. Premier League in August 1992. A new revolution in English football, one that would turn its back on the hooliganism and crumbling stadiums of the 1980s and broadcast the national sport to a new audience through Sky Sports and the huge new TV deal.

The previous season, Lennie Lawrence took over from Colin Todd and after retooling his side for a promotion push secured promotion with a nail-biting 2-1 victory against Wolves at Molineux on the final day of the season. The newly named top-flight beckoned and Boro couldn’t wait to be part of it.

As Boro started preparing for the new campaign, murmurs from the boardroom, and the dugout, suggested that a top 6 finish was the target. Off the pitch, the club’s approach towards recruitment didn’t reflect this ambitious target.

Boro had two main transfer targets for the summer: Gavin Peacock (Newcastle) and Robert Lee (Charlton). Both players offered goals and the creative drive to propel the side from possible relegation contenders to mid-table security. However, transfer dealings did not go to plan, with Peacock staying on at Newcastle with Kevin Keegan, but the Lee saga would continue into the season.

Surprisingly, the first piece of transfer business was not to strengthen the Boro attack but to deplete it. Free spending playoff winners Blackburn paid £1.3m for long-serving Stuart Ripley. A fantastic player, and one of the core members of Ricoh’s promotion winners of 1987, the flying winger was brought in to supply the crosses for new signing Alan Shearer, who had been purchased for a British record £3.6m.

Back at Ayresome Park, Boro didn’t spend anywhere that of Rovers and barely dented the £30 million-plus that clubs spent in the summer of 1992. Throwing caution to the wind and backed by the 5-year £305 million Sky TV deal, an unprecedented nine transfers surpassed the £1 million barrier including David Rocastle, Darren Anderton and the return to England of Chris Waddle.

A priority for Boro was to replace Stuart Ripley, which they did in the form of winger Tommy Wright from Leicester City. The transfer fee of £650,000 was exactly half the fee that his predecessor commanded. It was clear that Boro’s transfer dealings would be shrewd rather than spectacular.

Wright was full of confidence ahead of the move, turning down Newcastle to sign. This was in stark contrast to Ripley’s comments on his departure, commenting that Boro’s place was fixed as the third most important team in the North East football hierarchy.

The second summer signing was Jon Gittens for £200,000, converting his loan deal to a permanent one. Lawrence commented that they had signed Gittens out of sympathy because of the role that he played in the promotion season, despite knowing that he wouldn’t be good enough for the Premier League. A stark comment from a manager on the eve of a new season, but typical of Lawrence’s straight-talking style.

Surprisingly, Lawrence continued to bolster his defence with a double signing. Defenders Derek Whyte and Chris Morris travelled south from Celtic in a deal that ended up involving three players. The Morris signing effectively became a swap deal for Andy Payton, who had never settled at Boro or lived up to expectations.

Whyte on the other hand arrived for a club record £900,000. The centre back, who was still only 24, had been a burgeoning star when he broke into the side as a 16 year old, but his form had declined to a point that they felt they could part with the Scottish international.

New signings secured and a horrendous preseason behind them, Boro stepped into the Premier League era with a 2-1 defeat against Coventry City. Maybe life in the Premier League was not all sparkle and glamour yet as just over 12,500 fans witnessed the contest. Boro fans tried quickly to forget about the result and herald the dawn with the first home game of the season against Manchester City.

Image Credit - Mirrorpix Via Getty Images And forget they did as all memories of the match were erased with a confident 2-0 victory over City.

Up next, another home game. This time against reigning champions and Yorkshire rivals Leeds United.

At the time, Howard Wilkinson’s side had made a solid start, but as the season wore on their title defence turned out to be a disaster. The sale of mercurial Frenchman Eric Cantona did not help matters, but he would turn out at Ayresome Park.

The match that followed would go down as one of the best performances by a Boro side and gave all involved the optimism that maybe the dawn of the Premier League was a new dawn for the club too.

After the usual early exchanges, charging around the pitch and firing up the ground, the home fans did not have to wait long for the first goal. A mere eight minutes had passed when new signing Wright showed why he had been brought to the club.

Picking up the ball on the left-hand side, Boro’s number 10 rolled the ball infield. Rodney Wallace made no attempt to press the ball and showed Wright inside. He swung his right foot and the ball curled towards the penalty spot.

Motoring into the box between Chris Fairclough and Chris Whyte at the heart of the Leeds’ defence, Paul Wilkinson lunged forward and threw his huge frame towards the ball. He stuck out a leg and stabbed the ball past John Lukic into the net.

Behind the goal the Holgate erupted, arms and legs everywhere. Boro were in dreamland. 1-0 up against the champions.

Boro were in no mood to sit on their lead and less than a minute later Wright again found himself in an attacking position. He charged towards the touchline, swung his left boot at the ball and whipped it towards the edge of the six yard box. He knew a red shirt would attack.

And he was right. Wilkinson again in the right place to power the ball into the net. Pandemonium in the Holgate. 2-0 Boro and barely 10 minutes on the clock.

Straight after half time, Boro quickly increased their lead with Wright finding the net to go along with his two assists. 3-0 and Boro were in absolute dreamland, on course for another home win in front of a crowd in heaven.

Another pinpoint pass from Wright found ex-Leeds man John Hendrie streaming through the middle of the pitch. After turning defenders inside and out he hammered the ball low and hard into the back of the net. Just short of an hour gone and Boro were up 4-0.

Cantona managed to notch a scant consolation goal, but they had been soundly beaten.

The result demonstrated the potential in the side. Over the next five games, Boro would collect eight points with wins over Sheffield United and Manchester City (again) rising to the dizzy heights of sixth in the table. Everything was falling into place and at this early stage of the season the club were above some of English football’s giants.

To consolidate their strong position Boro made a move for Robert Lee from Lawrence’s old club Charlton. If Boro could strengthen their engine room after such a strong start, the team could have had all of the ingredients to maintain their performance level.

In typical Boro fashion, the negotiations, which could have been straight forward, dragged on and the player and his agents became frustrated with continued lowball offers. Lawrence imposed a deadline on the deal instead of pulling out all the stops. This backfired when Lee felt like he wasn’t what Boro actually wanted and he headed further north to join Keegan in Newcastle.

Boro reverted to type after that point and didn’t win in the league again until the end of November. This poor form meant the side was changed on a regular basis, resulting in very little consistency.

One of the players who didn’t take too kindly to being left out was Bernie Slaven. The striker had scored goals for Boro since 1985, but Paul Wilkinson’s eight goals and stellar form meant Slaven was no longer the main man. The manager’s direct approach certainly did not allow room for sentimentality towards Slaven and his place in Boro folklore.

The two parties never really clicked and even disagreed about who forced Slaven to submit the transfer request. Lawrence stated that Slaven thought his choice to go public was at the right time, probably a thinly veiled criticism that he disagreed with his striker. Whatever the cause of the dispute, Slaven was placed on the transfer list. It would not be the end of the clashes at all levels of the club during the season.

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One player who did arrive through the gates at Ayresome Park was promising Crewe youngster Craig Hignett. A £500,000 fee secured the signature of the Liverpool born attacker who had scored regularly for Crewe. The 21 year old made his debut in a game he’d rather forget; a 4-1 loss at fellow strugglers Oldham.

Boro had a chance to banish the Oldham thrashing with a home game against high flying Blackburn Rovers, who found themselves in second place. Despite their lofty league position behind surprise leaders Norwich, Dalglish’s side were going through their own tricky spell.

An even first half with few chances turned on the stroke of half time as Jason Wilcox’s mazy run from the halfway line resulted in the ball finding the back of the net. Lawrence’s team talk changed that instant and his response to coming behind was immediate.

Introduced at half time was Jamie Pollock, who replaced the hard running Robbie Mustoe to add bite in midfield. Needless to say Pollock was straight into the action, roughing up any player he could get his hands on. Not just an aggressive tackler, Pollock was a real box to box dynamo who burst onto the scene during the promotion campaign. He showed his ability to create chances with his run and cross for John Hendrie’s equaliser.

Hendrie’s second was a much scruffier affair. A curling shot while he slid towards the ground poking the ball past the helpless Bobby Mimms.

The hat trick goal summed up the standard of football that season; a poor clearance, a hopeful knock into the box and a poacher smashing it into the net. Boro conceded many of these goals during what was an awful season for the defence.

After the shock of going in at half time behind, just 13 second-half minutes later Boro were 3-1 up and a second consecutive home win was secured, but the joy was short-lived.

Before the ensuing 6 game winless run was ended with a home victory over Southampton, a Sky TV audience got to witness one of the lowest points in a campaign littered with them.

Sky’s Super Sunday was not the TV behemoth that it is today, but instead featured a single showpiece game. Boro’s opponents were title challengers Aston Villa coming off the back of wins against Arsenal and away to Liverpool. Ron Atkinson firmly believed his talented side had a shot at the title. They were about to show the viewing public just why.

The game was a perfect example of Boro’s worst efforts; awful defending and lacklustre attacking. The first two goals typified this with terrible errors; Derek Whyte and a non existent offside trap and Stephen Pears misjudging the flight of the ball in every way possible.

The strikeforce of Dwight Yorke and Dean Saunders drove more nails in Boro’s coffin and to be honest, the away side had no answer for anything Villa threw at them. 5-1 the final score, with Craig Hignett getting Boro’s consolation.

Another losing streak followed the Southampton win; 5 games this time. Boro sat in 20th place by the time they welcomed Graeme Souness and Liverpool.

The 33 points accumulated by Boro at this point was a paltry return when you consider they finished 1992 with 27 points. That didn’t matter too much to Liverpool who easily saw off a Boro side desperate for form.

Unfortunately, there was very little to be positive about during this tumultuous period. One of the most disappointing parts was the end of Bernie Slaven’s career at Boro.

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After his initial transfer listing, and subsequent reversal, the position for all parties had become untenable. Following a short period training with the youth side, Slaven moved to Port Vale in the Second Division. Lawrence’s parting sentiment only a simple wish that Slaven had departed sooner.

On the pitch, Boro visited Ewood Park, earned a gallant 1-1 draw and followed it up with a visit from the Sky Sports cameras for Monday Night Football; a huge six-pointer against Oldham Athletic.

A team with the ability to score freely and concede at a similar rate, Joe Royle’s side had suddenly found form by beating Manchester United and drawing 2-2 with QPR.

For Boro, a team with the inability to hold onto a lead and prevent basic errors, the result and performance was a complete disaster.

Living up to their form to that point, Oldham’s first half goals were typical of Boro’s hapless defence. Gifting your rivals a 2-0 lead is not the way to escape a relegation battle.

Despite this, Boro came back into the game, peppering Oldham’s goal to record almost twice as many shots as the visitors. At this point in the season the players were trying everything to get the result that would change the course of their season; it didn’t look likely.

In the second half, Boro pulled it back to 2-1, but then imploded defensively again, giving Andy Ritchie a free pass and stroll into the box to restore Oldham’s two goal lead. A late Craig Hignett header gave a glimmer of hope, but it wasn’t to be and once again Boro contributed to their downfall.

After the game, Lawrence was interviewed alongside his opposite number. Lawrence suggested his team was ‘barely alive’ and the predicament looked ominous despite six games remaining. As with every post match interview, the Boro boss lamented the poor defending, which was a recurring feature of his post match discussions.

As April arrived, there was little room for error. Boro’s slim survival hopes were delivered a hammer blow by mid-table Chelsea. The 4-0 drubbing at Stamford Bridge dumped Boro to the bottom of the league table and things looked bleak.

Never one for a rousing dose of positivity, Lawrence doubled down on the doom and gloom, laying it on thick in his programme notes for the visit of another mid-table London side; Arsenal.

He wrote that the Chelsea performance was ‘one of the biggest disappointments’ in his career. Continuing, he suggested that there would be an infusion of youth to shake up his ‘shell-shocked’ senior players. A huge risk during the run in, it was the last roll of the dice from a manager who had escaped the drop on many previous occasions. It was his last chance.

Under the lights of Ayresome Park, the overhauled lineup featured youngsters Graham Kavanagh and Jamie Pollock. The injection of youth worked. Boro beat the Gunners 1-0 thanks to a John Hendrie goal. A glimmer of hope before the final five games of the season, but still a huge task to remain amongst England’s elite.

Back to back defeats against Everton and Crystal Palace did nothing to help Boro’s cause and all but ended their chances of staying in the top division. But it wasn’t over, there was still a possibility that, if other results had gone in their favour, Boro would stay up.

Somehow Boro found hit sparkling form for the remaining three games, starting brilliantly with a 3-0 away win over Spurs. Wright hit form once again, albeit at the wrong time of the season and bagged two goals at White Hart Lane alongside another from Wilkinson. The striker who’s purple patch started the season, was in the midst of another as he notched for the third straight game.

Survival was still possible, but Boro needed another victory at Sheffield Wednesday.

Normally, as the season winds down plans are made for preseason tours, friendlies and transfer negotiations. Instead, the tail end of this season saw battles in the boardroom ignite between chairman Colin Henderson and board member Steve Gibson. Henderson felt Gibson was trying to take full control and lead the club on both the playing and financial side.

In a surprising move, Henderson resigned as chairman on the 30th of April, but retained his position as director, leaving the rest of the board in limbo. He felt his position was untenable, so had no other choice. It came at the worst time for Boro, who were preparing for their survival fight.

On the pitch, the players did everything they could, leading by three goals after 50 minutes thanks to fantastic strikes from Willie Falconer and Jamie Pollock, followed up by a third from John Hendrie. Two goals from Wednesday made the contest uncomfortable for Boro, but they held on to record a second consecutive win. If only this form had come three or four months earlier.

Despite Boro’s best efforts, Crystal Palace’s triumph over fellow strugglers Ipswich meant the Eagles had given their survival chances a shot in the arm. In the process, they condemned Boro to a future in the First Division.

The only other team that still had a chance to remain in the league were Oldham, who had two games remaining. Incredibly, they won at Villa (handing Manchester United the title) and then defeated Liverpool at home to preserve their top-flight status.

So to the final game of the season, against 3rd placed Norwich; the season’s surprise package. They had led the league for an inordinate number of days, even amassing an eight-point gap at Christmas. As the season progressed their form faltered and United stormed to the title, finishing with a seven-game winning streak and ten games unbeaten.

An entertaining game (as end of season games often can be) saw both sides throw caution to the wind. The 3-3 draw took Boro’s total goals for the remaining three games to nine and the club even ended up outscoring some mid-table sides. The fact they conceded three highlighted the other glaring issue. This once formidable defensive unit had shipped a frightening 75 goals, which was the worst in the division followed closely by Oldham’s 74.

Overall, the season was a huge disappointment. From missing out on transfer targets to a barren stretch of three wins in twenty, Boro never looked like staying in the league. European ambitions were a pipe dream. The club made all the right noises but boardroom wrangling off the pitch and awful defending on it meant Boro never had a chance.

There were bright spots. The burgeoning strike partnership of Paul Wilkinson and John Hendrie that developed towards the end of the season would prove effective over the next twelve months as Boro aimed for the Premier League again.

The emerging young talent has always been a trademark at Boro and the progression shown by Jamie Pollock and Graham Kavanagh suggested positive futures for both players. The squad also featured stalwarts of the various incarnations the club put out during the mid-90s; Derek Whyte, Curtis Fleming, Chris Morris, Robbie Mustoe and Craig Hignett all playing their part in the Riverside revolution.

Image Credit - Mirrorpix Via Getty Images

The cheerleaders may not have stayed at Ayresome Park for long, and Richard Keys garish jackets gradually became less blinding, but it certainly gave Boro’s power brokers a taste for the big time. After a boardroom shakeup, the ambitious young Steve Gibson took the reins with the task of preparing Boro for a prosperous future so the next time they were amongst the elite they would be ready; alive and kicking.

Image Credit - Mirrorpix Via Getty Images

This article was brought to you by The Boro Mag. You can buy the magazines here with all proceeds going to charity.

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