Although formed in 1876 by members of a local cricket club, Middlesbrough did not gain football league status for another 23 years. Perhaps they were put off by the disastrous effects election to the league had had on the town’s then other club Middlesbrough Ironopolis, who had folded after just one League season due to financial difficulties. Instead, Boro opted to play their football, with considerable success, in the Northern League. A 3-0 defeat at Lincoln City on the opening day of the 1899/00 season represented a meek opening to life in the Football League for a club that would always struggle to make an impact at the top level of English football.
Boro was promoted to Division 1, the then top division, in 1902 after a season in which they conceded a club record of just 24 goals. After one season in the top division, the club were relocated to Ayresome Park, which would remain their home for most of the century. Middlesbrough remained in Division 1 until 1924, but with little success, yet they did achieve the club’s best ever league finish of 3rd in 1914. However, the club caused some controversy in 1905 when they signed striker Alf Common for the hefty sum of £1,000, which represented the first ever four-figure transfer fee. Although never threatening the top clubs, the Teeside club enjoyed a spell in the top flight spanning three decades, from 1929 and 1954.
Between the divisions with some notable names – 1954-1986
It was after relegation in 1954 when Wilf Mannion decided to hang up his boots after 17 years with the club, interrupted only by the War. He made his name as a great dribbler and all round entertainer, going on to play for England at the 1950 World Cup, and was, some say, the club’s greatest player. It was in their first season back in Division 2 when the club suffered their worst ever defeat, a 9-0 hammering at Blackburn Rovers, and it was by the same scoreline that Boro enjoyed their biggest ever win, just three years later. Netting five goals that day was a promising, young and locally born striker named Brian Clough, although Old Big Head’s time with the club was a controversial one. Transfer requests were frequent and at one point no fewer than nine of his fellow teammates signed a petition demanding he be stripped of his captaincy. His record speaks for itself however, and although not in the top flight, Clough played 222 games for the club, scoring 204 goals before moving up the road to Sunderland in 1961.
After a brief spell in Division 3, Middlesbrough was not to return to the top flight of English football until 1974, when Jack Charlton led them to the Division 2 title with a record 65 points (two points for a win). The Teesiders remained in Division 1 until 1982, failing to make much of an impact, despite some good cup runs – getting to the FA Cup quarter-finals three times and losing a League Cup semi-final to Manchester City. The club also entered the record books for the record transfer fee received, selling David Mills to West Brom for half a million pounds in 1979. Following Boro’s relegation they gambled on the flamboyant Malcolm Allison, who had achieved considerable success with Manchester City. He failed to get the club back into the top flight however, and parted company with Boro two years later.
Near extinction and the Riverside Revolution – 1986 – Present
In 1986 Middlesbrough reached perhaps their lowest ebb. Following relegation to Division 3 for the second time in the club’s history, Boro fell into liquidation and it took a consortium consisting of chemical company ICI and Newcastle Scottish brewers, amongst others, in order to save the club from possible extinction. This was led by Steve Gibson who became Chairman, appointing manager Bruce Rioch who then achieved the remarkable feat of two consecutive promotions – catapulting the side back into the top flight with a side consisting mostly of local youngsters. Some of the notable names in this team included Gary Pallister, Tony Mowbray and Stuart Ripley, all of who went on to lift trophies with other clubs. A second promotion proved a step too far and Rioch failed to keep the side in Division 1. The club was relegated after just one season and star player Pallister was sold at the end of the season for another British record fee of £2.3m to Manchester United.
After promotion to and relegation from the inaugural Premier League, Gibson appointed his football hero Brian Robson as manager at the beginning of the 1994/95 season, and was about to bankroll somewhat of a revolution for the club. Robson won promotion to the Premier League immediately with an expensively assembled team, yet this was only the beginning. This promotion proved to be inspired timing, as in preparation for their first season back in the top flight, Middlesbrough moved into the 30,000 capacity Riverside Stadium – the biggest new stadium built in the United Kingdom for 70 years. It was a fitting arena for the glitz and glamour of the Premier League and Gibson was determined to find marquee signings to christen the new ground. Boro smashed their own transfer record, signing England international Nick Barmby for £5.25m. Gibson’s money also managed to attract the Brazilian Footballer of the Year, Junihno to the club. Junihno’s flare and ability steered the Teesiders to a stable 12th placed finish in the 1995/96 season, and although the club lost Barmby to Everton at the end of the campaign, their adventures in the transfer market were by no means over – completing the signing of silver haired Italian Fabrizio Ravenelli for £7m.
All however, did not go to plan, and Middlesbrough suffered another controversial relegation next season, after being deducted three points for failing to fulfil a fixture. In the two domestic cup competitions it was a different story as the Teeside club made the final of both. The League Cup was lost after a replay to Leicester City and Boro succumbed to a 2-0 defeat against Chelsea in the FA Cup final, giving Middlesbrough the slightly auspicious record of being the only ever club to have competed and lost in the two major cup finals and be relegated from the Premier League during the same season. Junihno was not about to ply his trade in the lower leagues and promptly joined Athletic Madrid for £12m.
Steve Gibson, admirably gave Robson a chance to get the club back into the top flight and his faith was repaid when Boro secured promotion at the first attempt, with a side that contained such illustrious names as Emerson, Paul Merson and Paul Gascoigne, yet not forgetting local boy and crowd favourite Craig Hignett. He also steered them to another League Cup final, but once again, Chelsea undid them 2-0. Two relatively stable seasons followed, yet the club again flirted with relegation, and in the winter of 2000 Terry Venables was brought on-board to offer an experienced hand to Robson. With El Tel’s help Borough finished strongly and climbed to 14th position, yet the time was up for Robson, who chose to part-company with the club after a distinctly eventful seven years in charge.
Steve McLaren then took charge of the team, deciding to try his hand at management after serving successfully as Sir Alex Ferguson’s number two at Manchester United. After a promising first season, a second Teeside spending revolution got underway, and McLaren splashed out some £20m in preparation for the 2002/03 season on such talents as George Boateng, Franck Quedrue and Geremi. Fans favourite Junihno also rejoined the club after failing to make an impact at Athletico Madrid for £3.8m. Mid-table mediocrity was to characterise McLaren’s early years at the club, yet he did lead them to triumph, finally, at a Cup final – wi