Only a few weak imprints of my first game are now carved on the back wall of my memory, and they are fading. A seven-year-old’s recollection of the final match of the 1996/97 Premier League is hardly one to be trusted, and so substantial newspaper archiving has been required for me to contextualise a baking hot day at Elland Road.
Leeds had dismissed their title-winning manager Howard Wilkinson earlier in the season, and seemed destined for years of mid-table obscurity. This was, however, a situation far favourable to Middlesbrough’s. With a sudden three-point reduction for failing to ‘fulfil a fixture’ against Blackburn, Boro were deep in the relegation pot. They needed to win.
Of course, I had no idea of this at the time. I remember Brian Deane scoring in front of me, and looking up to the upper tier of the East stand as “Deano, Deano, Deano!” rang out across the turf. I didn’t know who had scored; I hardly knew what had happened. I thought they were shouting about a dinosaur: the Flintstones was a Saturday morning hit at the time.
There was a streaker – apparently. I know this because my cousin and I talked of nothing else on the way home. At the end of the game I remember my mother pointing and laughing at Juninho: “Look, he’s crying. Ha ha ha.” The winger, who had clawed an equaliser back for his side, was in a ball of tears on the pitch.
My young, blinkered mind assumed the little Brazilian was upset at not winning. I had no idea what relegation was; I hadn’t heard of Middlesbrough until that morning. I laughed along with my mum. It wasn’t until years later I realised two things: simply how brilliant Juninho was, and the heartbreak of relegation.