A Middlesbrough Fan's Love Letter To His Greatest Xl

Middlesbrough take on Sunderland tonight in the FA Cup Fourth Round replay, they could do with a couple of this lot in the side...
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Middlesbrough take on Sunderland tonight in the FA Cup Fourth Round replay, they could do with a couple of this lot in the side...

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Middlesbrough’s paper-thin squad will be lining up against Sunderland tonight in their FA Cup Fourth Round replay. The Boro were unlucky to lose the first game, the bookies had us lined up as major underdogs, and it’ll be much the same tomorrow. These sort of matches always have fans reminiscing over games of the past, and the great players who played in those great encounters, so I fancied putting together the best Boro starting XI that I could think of.

There’s always the same usual suspects thrown around with this sort of thing; Brian Clough, George Hardwick, Wilf Mannion, George Camsell. I won’t be including any of these guys, how can I pretend to be an expert when I never even saw them play. I’m even going to be discounting Holgate Heroes who were at the club whilst I was alive; Stuart Ripley, Tony Mowbray, even Bernie Slaven (sorry, Wolfman). These guys have just missed out on my tenure as a ‘proper’ fan.

It sounds an easy task, picking the best 11 players that you have seen play, but there are a few things to consider. Regardless of their talent, did I enjoy watching them play? How would they fit in alongside my other selections? Am I taking this all a bit too seriously?

Here’s the team;

Goalkeeper: Mark Schwarzer

Brilliant goalkeeper, but a bit of a controversial figure these days on Teesside after he left under a cloud made of money from Harrods. It’s easy to forget that Schwarzer was at the Boro for 11 years – making him the longest serving foreign player at one club in the Premier League. His lack of a testimonial match was never contested due to his yearly habit of putting in a transfer request and flirting with other clubs. However, he consistently made important saves (though failing to break Stephen Pears’ run of 7 clean sheets) and for this reason, he starts in between the sticks.

Centre Backs: Nigel Pearson and Gareth Southgate

Fantastic centre halves who were both technically brilliant; Southgate played well alongside Ugo Ehiogu throughout large parts of his career, and I considered reuniting them, but I think most Boro fans would have loved to have seen these two together. Pearson was a brilliant captain who led the Boro to two promotions, and maintained an image of being hard as nails throughout his 4 seasons. Southgate was a gentleman on and off the pitch, and rarely looked like he was doing too much whilst consistently making beautifully timed last ditch tackles - a legend at the club, regardless of his disappointing spell as manager.

Full Backs: Gianluca Festa and Franck Queudrue

I came very close to putting Gianluca Festa in at centre back. That was where he played most of his football at the Boro. He never put a foot wrong wherever he played, and gave a very healthy goal return during his time at the club. Remaining at the club after their first relegation from the Premier League when most fled, he proved to be instrumental in their immediate return. Would prefer him in the middle alongside Pearson and Southgate in a back 5, but a lack of options at full back means I will be asking him to play in his second-best role. Left back is a tricky position, the obviously gifted Christian Ziege should walk into it, but the acrimonious circumstances he left the club under make the spotty tool impossible to pick. Franck Queudrue will fill the void nicely though. During his first few years at the Boro he seemed unplayable, particularly when he curbed his red card habit and continued to be solid defensively whilst scoring excellent set-pieces – it was all too good to be true - Queudrue slipped into obscurity after the arrival of Emmanuel Pogatetz (who wasn’t a particularly good left back), and visited Fulham, Birmingham and Colchester before ending up back where he started at Lens.

Imagine those two strikers being supplied by the best Brazilian the Premier League has ever seen

Midfield: George Boateng, Robbie Mustoeand Nick Barmby

The toughest decision I had to make was which of the Midget Gems to stick in the line-up. Craig Hignett was very loyal to the Boro, taking a pay cut to stay at the club in the late 90s, and throughout his time at the club was consistently good. However, Nick Barmby was outrageous for the year he was on Teesside– earning himself a call up to Euro ’96. Hignett might have scored the first goal at the Riverside, but Barmby set him up. He has earned his place as a result of being my first favourite footballer, and that is sufficient criteria. Boateng and Mustoe feel like pretty obvious selections to me. It’s a real shame that Robbie Mustoe was in his pomp when England were gifted with a real glut of quality midfielders, because he could have done a hell of a job - an unsung hero for the Boro who always stood out, regardless of who he was playing alongside, or against. Boateng was an astute signing by Steve McClaren, with the Dutchman being ever present for the majority of his 6 years at the club. He might have had a foot like a fifty pence piece when it came to shooting, but his tackling was severe, and he meant everything - fit as a butcher’s dog and tough too.

Forwards: Juninho, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Alen Boksic

A pretty divisive front line I would imagine, barring the Little Fella. The White Feather and Alen ‘Off Sick’ were two of the classiest and most cultured strikers ever seen at the Boro, but both frustrated as much as they entertained. Ravanelli enjoyed one season at the club, and what a season it was. How can a team reach two finals and find themselves relegated? Our front line will certainly never know. Ravanelli certainly scored plenty that season – more than a goal every other game. He was a monster in front of goal, terrifying defenders with his traction engine of a left foot. Whilst Alen Boksic was quality defined – an eternally frustrating player who was capable of so much. There’s never been a more natural finisher play for Middlesbrough, with deceptively fast reactions to boot. Imagine those two strikers being supplied by the best Brazilian the Premier League has ever seen. It says a lot about the impact Juninho had in England that when Gianfranco Zola pipped him to the Player of the Year title in 1997, Alex Ferguson was appalled - "Against us he’s [Juninho] been superb, the best player I've seen in the Premier this season." Not much needs to be said about Juninho really, he would feature in any Boro XI regardless of who he was up against - a hero.

Substitutes:

Hamilton Ricard – No Boro player has scored more goals in one season in the Premier League - or killed more people whilst driving.

Craig Hignett - Narrowly beaten to the starting XI by his fellow short-arsed companion Nick Barmby – more loving memories of Higgy though.

Marco Branca - 9 goals in 12 games - fondly remembered until he tried to sue the club.

Ugo Ehiogu – Always a pleasure to watch on the ball, not perfect, but a lovely player.

Emerson – Great dancer, wonderful shot, took too long to return from his holidays though.

Manager: Tony Mowbray

Mogga has worked miracles since he arrived at the club. A boyhood fan, his appointment has got fans wondering why he hasn’t been here longer. Finally able to channel the creativity he couldn’t as a player through his tactics. Considering he has been operating on a shoestring budget he deserves the keys to the city. I wonder how he would have handled this squad. It would have certainly been interesting to watch them play together.

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