Money matters most for league contenders

Despite the fee Liverpool received for Luis Saurez, they may struggle to reach heights of last season

Then Middlesbrough manager Bryan Robson introduces new signing Fabrizio Ravanelli of Italy at the Riverside Stadium in July 1996. Photograph: Allsport.

Then Middlesbrough manager Bryan Robson introduces new signing Fabrizio Ravanelli of Italy at the Riverside Stadium in July 1996. Photograph: Allsport.

Sat, Jul 26, 2014, 14:00

In the summer of 1996, Middlesbrough FC signed Fabrizio Ravanelli from Juventus for £7 million. The Italian had featured regularly on the Saturday morning Serie A highlights show on Channel 4 so was no stranger to English football fans. He was strong and dynamic, celebrated goals with abandon and looked a lot like Richard Gere during the Internal Affairs phase of his career.

All of the commentators loved saying his name and, along with Juninho and Emerson, he gave an international dimension to Boro and it was amusing to imagine Ravanelli wandering the former steel and iron town on his days off, leather-jacketed and Gucci-ed, wearing shades because it is an Italian birthright and searching in vain for a quality espresso.

Ravanelli arrived just when English football was on the cusp of a radical change in the ratio of home to foreign players. The previous year, Arsenal had purchased Denis Bergkmap for £7.5 million while Liverpool stayed local, buying Stan Collymore for £8.5 million.

But in August 1996, Middlesbrough played Liverpool in the first match of the Premier League and the White Feather scored a hat-trick in front of the ecstatic local support. So began a winter of sensory overload for Boro fans. They reached the FA Cup final. Chelsea beat them 2-0. They made it to the League Cup final. Leicester beat them 2-1.

And no team was more fun to watch in that year’s league, when Middlesbrough scored 51 goals, the seventh highest total in the league. They were relegated on the final day.

Middlesbrough finished 12th in the championship last year. Not a fatal position but miles off the promotion race and in a different world to that heady afternoon when they had the insanely fun notion of just outshooting every other team in the Premier League.

Market meltdown

As the transfer market goes into meltdown these weeks, it is striking how quaint the Ravanelli fee looks. Boro fans must read the latest comings and goings and wonder if they will ever again be able to keep company with the giants of English football.

They will see that Louis van Gaal has been told by the Manchester United board that he can pay more than any club has paid for a footballer in order to restore the Old Trafford club to the forefront of the European game. Like Viv Nicholson, the Dutch man can spend, spend, spend.

The question is: on whom? The month long jamboree in Brazil highlighted the rush among the super-clubs to snap up the relative short-list of what the Americans call franchise players: footballers with the hypnotic power to keep the turnstiles ticking and, more crucially, make every kid want a replica shirt.

Luke Shaw will enhance Manchester United but no more and with Adidas on board for a £750 million (€950m) kit deal, the onus is on United to attract a player whose personal wattage is almost as strong as that of the club. The trouble is that there are so few of what is the ex pros call “top, top” players. That was never as apparent as during last year.

United fans, players and executives looked through narrow eyes and with gritted teeth as Luis Suarez came close to bringing Liverpool a first league title in 24 years through his uncanny and unstoppable genius. Before Liverpool played Chelsea last May, one thing was clear: this was the best chance they would have to win the league for years.

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