Book Review – The Reality of the Dream: My unique journey from non-league to the Premier League by Malcolm Christie

At the back of Malcolm Christie’s biography titled The Reality of the Dream, is a table showing his appearances and goals from his youth and amateur career and his time in the semi-professional and professional game. Putting aside Christie’s scoring record as an amateur and youth player, what stands out is that as a professional from 1998 to 2009 – some 11 years – he only managed 132 starts and 51 appearances from the bench. Now it could be interpreted that at his three clubs, Derby County, Middlesbrough and Leeds United, the management team simply didn’t ‘fancy’ Christie and so his first team opportunities were limited. However, the reality is that his career was decimated by a series of debilitating injuries which meant Christie was more familiar with the treatment room than the dressing room and therefore unsurprisingly features large in this autobiography.

The book opens with two Forewords, one from Steve Round and the other from Steve McClaren who worked as assistant and manager, respectively, during Christie’s spells at Derby County and Middlesbrough. It also includes an Introduction from current England manager, Gareth Southgate, who was Middlesbrough skipper and then manager during Christie’s time at the Riverside Stadium. All as you would expect praising Christie’s character during his difficult playing career.

As readers we first hear Christie’s ‘voice’ in the Prologue, which details his goal at Old Trafford on May 2001 as Derby beat the Premier League Champions elect, a result which would see the Rams eventually hold onto their top-flight status. It is undoubtedly the highlight of Christie’s career, with him scoring against the club he supported since boyhood and its importance in Derby’s fight to avoid the drop, providing it with immense significance.

The story then opens with the first of 24 chapters as it goes back to Christie’s childhood, and his playing days at school, detailing how he came to support Manchester United, despite growing up in Lincolnshire. Although rejected by Peterborough United early on, Christie found his way into the professional game after a successful spell at non-league Nuneaton Borough, scoring 14 goals in 21 games. Jim Smith was the Derby County manager in 1998 and he signed the 19 year old Christie, who at the time besides his part-time football was working in Somerfield’s supermarket. Having not come through an Academy meant that Christie (as he admits in the book) wasn’t grounded and groomed in the same way as other young professionals and so wasn’t confident in this new environment and indeed his first experience as a substitute warming up at Anfield in the Premier League was an eye-opener for the teenage Christie.

1998/99 though saw Christie make his Premier League debut with two substitute appearances, first against Sheffield Wednesday on 30 January 1999 and then on 20 March 1999 against Leeds United. In the following season, 1999/2000, Derby started badly and by December had only three wins from seventeen games and were in one of the relegation spots. Christie too was struggling on a personal level after receiving a misguided Secret Santa gift from a fellow player, “I became even more self-conscious and retreated further into my shell…I spent too much energy trying to be the person I thought people wanted me to be, instead of being my normal self. As a result, my teammates never got to know the real me.” Nonetheless, on 15 January 2000, Christie made his first start for the Rams and scored twice as they beat Middlesbrough on their own patch 4-1. It saw him finish the campaign with six goals from ten starts as well as eleven appearances off the bench and earning him the Club’s Young Player of the Year award. This brought Christie to the attention of Howard Wilkinson who was then the England U21 manager, who had guided his team to the European Championships in the summer of 2000. Having flown out to Slovakia, Christie was not included in the final squad so returned to the UK. He then contracted viral meningitis and as would sadly happen on other occasions in later years, found his fitness hit by illness and injury.

Thankfully in this case, Christie’s absence from the first-time wasn’t a long one and he returned to duty in early September 2000 with Derby once again getting off to a poor start in their league campaign. However, it proved to be a memorable one as Christie finished as Derby’s league goals top scorer with 12, the Rams retained their Premier League status, and he scored his first England for the England U21s. However, what topped it off for Christie was becoming a sticker in the Panini Premier League album! It illustrates how much of a fan he was and retained a schoolboy enthusiasm even as a top-flight professional.

However, after dodging the bullet of relegation in two previous seasons and despite the addition of Fabrizio Ravanelli the club was relegated at the end of the 2001/02 campaign. Christie stayed at the Pride Park for the start of the following season but departed for then Premier league Middlesbrough on deadline day in January 2003 in a joint deal with Chris Riggott who was to have a significant impact on Christie’s career. At that time, Boro’ were a decent side under Steve McClaren with the like of Gareth Southgate, Croatian striker Alan Boksic and Brazilian superstar Juninho in the squad.

Whilst things on the pitch were good for Christie as he scored in his first start, he reflects that it was a period when his mental health was suffering to the extent that, “my anxiety levels had been increasing at an alarming rate since the 2002 Euros and by the time I joined Middlesbrough, I was no longer able to suppress it and I began to suffer with bouts of double vision.” Indeed, Christie is open throughout the book on his struggles acknowledging that stress wasn’t viewed by sport and indeed society back then as a real issue, which thankfully today is being addressed.

With the 2002/03 season at an end, Christie underwent surgery for a groin injury and removal of his tonsils which impacted his pre-season preparation. However, battling the physical tiredness and on-going mental issues, he started the season, scoring the winner in extra-time against Brighton in the League, a goal that would set Boro’ on their way to Wembley. For Christie though what happened next was to change things irrevocably.

“I will never forget the 4th November 2003. It was the day my life changed forever. It was the day my football career ended. It’s as simple as that.”

In a routine training session, Christie had his leg broken in a tackle with Chris Riggott who had joined Middlesbrough with Christie. Christie attached no blame then or in the book for what happened. He wasn’t out of plaster until February 2004 so was not part of the Boro’ squad which went on to win the League Cup. Christie like the other injured players were kept away from the squad on the day and it deeply hurt him. “Whilst the Boro’ players were celebrating in the dressing room…myself and the other cast-offs…were boarding a coach back to the airport, again missing out on a once in a lifetime opportunity.” His feelings were that strong that he did not attend a celebration dinner and had to be persuaded by manager Steve McClaren to be part of the bus-top parade to show off the trophy.

With the dawn of the new season and Middlesbrough in the UEFA Cup, Christie was still struggling with is leg despite playing for the reserves and a sub appearance in Europe against Banik Ostrava. Eventually he had a CT scan which revealed his leg was still effectively broken and so required surgery. Christie pulls no punching in being critical of the treatment he received and the impact it had on his physical and mental health. He returned to action 15 months later in February 2005, scoring on his return at Portsmouth only to be injured in his next match with a stress fracture of the fifth metatarsal, which required surgery.

2005/06 saw Middlesbrough back in the UEFA Cup and Christie back in pre-season training. However, once again the footballing gods were not on his side as operations were needed to deal with the rod in his leg which was causing knee problems and nerve problems in his feet. Even after coming through these and returning to training, injury struck again with a re-fractured foot. Whilst he sat on the side-lines, Boro’ reached the FA Cup Semi-Final and UEFA Cup Final, the most successful period of their history. By April 2006 Christie was back in action, and unlike the League Cup previously travelled as part of the squad to the UEFA Cup Final in Eindhoven.

The following season Steve McClaren left the Riverside Stadium to become England manager with Gareth Southgate coming in as Boro’ gaffer. Once again Christie suffered another injury, this time, torn ankle ligaments. Returning in November 2006 he scored against Aston Villa, a first goal in 21 months. In a stop start season, Christie started his final match for Boro’ in April 2007 playing a full ninety minutes for the first time in three and a half years. With his contract expiring in June 2007 his time on Teesside was over. As with some much of this book, Christie is honest about his mindset at the time, “leaving was the right thing for me and the club, I needed to get away from football for a bit…part of me had given up and I’d begun to fall out of love with the beautiful game.”

Without a club, Christie went on trial at Hull City in what provided to be another demoralising experience with him suffering some poor treatment by then Tigers manager Phil Brown. Burton Albion offered a contract which Christie turned down and was then given a lifeline trialling at Leeds United in January 2008. However, unbelievably in training Christie suffered a fractured spine which meant that he didn’t play a single game in 2007/08. In November 2008 he signed for Leeds and debuted against Northampton Town in the FA Cup. With Leeds manager Gary McAllister keen to sign Christie, he was then sacked and replaced by Simon Grayson. With his back problems persisting the final straw for Christie came in late January 2009 when after not being picked for a game against Peterborough United and an overhead outburst from Grayson, Christie walked away from football. Christie reflects on the moment saying, “my overriding emotion was one of pure relief. My injury problems had started way back in November 2003 and had dragged on through to January 2009…over five years of injury hell.”

The final chapter explores Christie’s life after his playing career, which saw him work in the motor industry until 2019 and find a more settled family life, reconnecting with his parents once more. Christie though rediscovered his love for the game through his boys, leading to him setting up his own Academy, Christie Coaching. As this review is written Christie has taken up a post at former club Middlesbrough as a Youth Development Phase Coach and one can hope that he translates the undoubtedly ability he had as a player to the youngsters under his charge.

The Reality of the Dream is an incredibly honest account. As readers we share the joy of his journey to being a Premier League player and scoring the winner against his boyhood club. However, equally it is not an easy read at times as you feel Christie’s anxiety, pain and torment as his career drifts away from the high of that goal at Old Trafford in May 2001 through the strength sapping injuries to the low of walking away from Elland Road in January 2009. Christie is open about his mental health struggles, and it is hoped that this book has been cathartic and part of the process in his healing process and his re-engagement with the game that he loves.

(Publisher: Morgan Lawrence Publishing Services. June 2022. Paperback: 248 pages)


Buy the book here: Malcolm Christie

Category: Reviews | LEAVE A COMMENT


Like most young boys, Malcolm Christie grew up dreaming of becoming a professional footballer.

Rejected by his hometown club Peterborough United and working at Somerfield supermarket, playing amateur football at 19, Malcolm thought the moment had passed him by.

But dreams do come true.

Just months after he was stacking shelves, Malcolm was playing for Derby County in the Premier League. International honours and a big money move to Middlesbrough followed as Malcolm became one of English footballs brightest prospects until a succession of injuries led to a premature end of his promising football career.

The Reality of the Dream chronicles the amazing story of Malcolm Christie’s journey to become the only person in history to go straight from non-league to scoring in the Premier League and representing his country without ever joining a professional academy.

Sad, funny and often emotional, Malcolm’s unique tale provides a brutally honest insight into the reality of life as a footballer, an injured footballer and worse – a retired footballer.

(Publisher: Morgan Lawrence Publishing Services. June 2022. Paperback: 248 pages)

Book Review – Hooked: Addiction and the Long Road to Recovery by Paul Merson

In recent years, Paul Merson has stuck his head above the parapet to speak openly, honestly, movingly and at times heartbreakingly about his struggles with addiction, and his latest book, Hooked, delves more deeply into these issues, his troublesome relationship with alcohol, drugs and gambling and his long and continuing road to recovery. For all of the brilliance of the man on the pitch, his greatest contribution may be off it, with a book that helps readers understand the illness that is addiction and hopefully speaks to those who really need it.

Merson’s life has arguably been defined by two things: football and addiction, so it’s no surprise that these two themes are the centrepiece of this book. But in many ways, as in his life itself, football takes a back seat to the narrative of addiction. Indeed, whilst football may have seemed like the crux of Merson’s life, he explains how addiction, in fact, overrode everything. A shy and somewhat anxious young footballer who was thrust into the big leagues as a mere teenager at Arsenal, Merson soon found confidence in alcohol and a release in gambling, but just as his career would take off, so too would his addictions. And what strikes you is whether more could have been done to help a young Merson navigate such a formative stage in his life and his career, to have guided him down a very different path, bringing to mind that opening line in Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ – ‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood’. This was, of course, the 1980s, when drinking culture in particular was synonymous with football, and Arsenal’s infamous Tuesday Club would become the epitome – or nadir – of that culture, and for Merson there was no better – or, rather, no worse – place for him to be. I’d like to think that things have changed and there is a lot more support and guidance now, especially for young footballers coming through as still impressionable adolescents, but sadly this certainly wasn’t the case back then. And whilst it’s heartening to hear Merson speak with such respect for the likes of George Graham and Bryan Robson who did what they could to try to help, the system and the organisation just wasn’t set up then to assist players, leaving them to their own destructive devices.

Merson’s road to recovery has been a long and difficult one and it’s easy to pick up on his insecurities, his vulnerabilities and his weaknesses, but also his determination and his hope, although what is also painfully clear is that addiction is a daily struggle. Indeed, what Merson communicates so effectively, I think, is addiction as a disease. As the American Medical Association defined, it is not a behaviour problem or just the result of making bad choices, but a chronic brain disorder. Once addicts and non-addicts alike begin to accept and understand this a lot more, greater support and empathy should follow, but still addiction seems to be treated as a taboo, and that can’t help anybody. Paul Merson has done a lot in recent times to advance discussions and break down barriers, even when battling against his own addictions, and I think he deserves a lot of respect and credit for fighting for both himself and others, especially when it comes to tackling gambling addiction. His BBC 1 documentary, Football, Gambling and Me, was both an eye-opening and heart-rending look at this lesser-addressed, but arguably more insidious problem, which he explains in this book is the invisible enemy, less obvious and more secretive than the obvious outward displays of alcoholism or drug abuse. It is the addiction that has possibly cost him the most, both materially and financially – he doesn’t skirt around detailing the mammoth sums he lost, not to boast or to brag about the money he was on, but rather to demonstrate just how the disease completely took over – but also socially, having robbed him of brilliant moments in life, with football and family.

What comes across so poignantly in this book is that Merson was just an ordinary boy with an extraordinary talent thrust into a man’s world when still himself just a youth without the mechanisms or support in place to guide him or help him cope and he’s struggled ever since to battle his addictions and find respite and inner peace. It’s great to hear that he’s finally overcoming the disease but it’s also moving to see that every day has its challenges. Football has always been his salvation and I, for one, love him as a pundit and am glad to see him still finding reprieve in the beautiful game. A supremely talented football, Merson’s legacy should comprise all of his heroics on the pitch, but this book and his work to further the discussion around addiction is a symbol of his real heroism. He has proven himself to be a brave, strong and top man, but what is so endearing is that he’s the footballer, the pro, the pundit, that you’d want to sit down with and discuss football, because you know he’d been himself – open, honest, knowledgeable and good fun. Until that day when I get to sit with the man himself, I’ll continue to enjoy his input on TV, with absolute respect for his courage, empathy of his issues and belief in his journey. But if I do ever get to sit down with him, there will be one pressing matter from this book to tackle first – honestly, Paul, not Chelsea? I guess, we’ve all got our flaws.

Jade Craddock


(Publisher: Headline. September 2021. Hardcover: 304 pages)


Buy the book here: Paul Merson: Hooked

Category: Reviews | LEAVE A COMMENT


Hooked is Merson’s wonderfully moving and brutally honest memoir of battling addiction, unflinching in detailing his emotional and psychological troughs and in raking over the painful embers of an adult life blighted by such debilitating issues.

‘I can’t remember a time before addiction. I can’t remember what the absence of addiction felt like.’

For twenty-one years Paul Merson played professional football, but for thirty-five years has also been an addict. Alcohol, drugs, gambling: a desperately unenviable cocktail of addictions and depression which has plagued his entire adult life and driven him to the verge of suicide.

‘All I’ve ever wanted my entire life is to be normal – take the kids to the park, sit in the garden, Sunday roast – and be someone my family could rely on.’

‘At night, I go to bed and put my head on the pillow and appreciate that it’s a miracle that I haven’t had a bet or a drink.’

Hooked will kick-start a crucial national conversation about addiction, depression and the damage they wreak, and about the long road to recovery.

‘If this book manages to save just one person, it would be the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.’

‘The addiction’s not in the drink or the bet or the drug. The addiction is in my head. It’s an inside job.’

‘Always remember, addiction needs you on your own. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You are not alone.’

‘When you’re a compulsive gambler and you have money, it isn’t burning a hole in your pocket, it’s burning a hole in your mind.’

‘Drinking was like boarding a rocket for me, a ticket to a different world.’

(Publisher: Headline. September 2021. Hardcover: 304 pages)

Top Ten Football Books: Tom Flight

Tom Flight is a Middlesbrough fan who grew up in Teesside and started going to games from the 1994/95 season when Boro’ were promoted to the Premier League. Yer Joking Aren’t Ya?: The Story of Middlesbrough’s Unforgettable 1996/97 is his excellent book, reviewed by FBR, charting the incredible campaign when stars such as Fabrizio Ravanelli and Juninho graced the Riverside Stadium. Tom now lives in the USA but continues to follow the fortunes of Middlesbrough from across the pond.

Here Tom picks his top ten books, with a very international flavour.

10. The Mixer: The Story of Premier League Tactics, from Route One to False Nines – Michael Cox

Michael Cox has found a way of making tactics writing highly entertaining and readable. It feels like tactical styles and trends are endlessly analysed these days (Sheffield United overlapping centre-backs etc.) so I really enjoyed looking back and see how trends evolved in the early days of the Premier League. This is a book for both the tactics nerd and the 90’s nostalgia fan.

9. Stillness and Speed – Dennis Bergkamp and David Winner

Bergkamp was probably the footballer I enjoyed watching the most as child. This book makes you appreciate his breathtaking technique and style of play even more. Rather than a traditional biography, the unique structure of the book brings you into the mindset of Bergkamp; you learn literally what was going through his head in moments such as when Frank de Boer hit the long-ball in the last minute against Argentina in 1998. The book is a riveting insight into one of the game’s greatest craftsmen.

8. Soccer in Sun and Shadow – Eduardo Galeano

 A poetic history of football. Galeano’s lyrical style makes almost every sentence in the entire book quotable. A legendary Uruguayan man of letters, he was a football fanatic but is never afraid to slip in social commentary and history throughout. Often hilarious, he is also vicious in his attacks of certain figures in the football hierarchy.

7. The Mavericks: English Football When Flair Wore Flares – Robert Steen

I wasn’t alive in the 7’s but I watched a lot of BBC’s Match of the Seventies and re-watched 101 Great Goal VHS’s endlessly as a child. The ‘Mavericks’ described in this book were true characters of the game of which we just don’t see in the game anymore. Steen writes authentic portraits of the rebels who played the game with a swagger and weren’t afraid to give two fingers to the establishment. A work of social history as well as a great football book.

6. Too Good To Go Down: The Inside Story of Manchester United’s Relegation – Wayne Barton

I’m not a Manchester United fan, although I do find them to be a fascinating club and this book covers an extraordinary chapter in their history. When I was researching my own book I was trying to read books about focused on English clubs or on a specific season in a club’s history as inspiration, and I read some of Wayne Barton’s book and I found this book on Manchester United’s fall from grace after the 1968 European Cup Win to relegation and subsequent rebound under Tommy Docherty to be an absorbing read. His follow-up covering the Atkinson era is superb also.

5. Calcio: A History of Italian Football – John Foot

As a fan of Italian football since watching Football Italia on Channel 4 I found this book to be an absolutely captivating history of the Italian game. It gives great insight into the rivalries, the corruption and also how the defensive style of Italian football developed and thrived.

4. God Is Round – Juan Villoro

“Reality gets better in the writing of it,” Villoro writes. Sometimes I think I enjoy reading about football more than watching it and this book is a good example of why. A series of enchanting essays, this book will help rekindle any loss of enthusiasm for the game.

3. Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey — and Even Iraq — Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport – Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

I’ll read anything Simon Kuper writes, and Football Against The Enemy is a big favourite of mine. I’ll pick this book for my top ten simply because it changed the way I thought about the game and challenged many preconceptions I had. The chapter on penalty kicks is particularly memorable.

2. Angels With Dirty Faces: How Argentinian Soccer Defined a Nation and Changed the Game Forever – Jonathan Wilson

 Inverting the Pyramid changed the way I watched and thought about football. After reading that book I felt like I knew everything about football. But pretty soon I realised the book actually opened up just how much there was to learn about the game. That book just made me want to read more about football, and read books such as this amazing book. An enthralling history of Argentina and the nations unique relationship with football. I’ve always been fascinated with Argentinian football and I’m so pleased this book exists.

1. All Played Out – Pete Davies

The first World Cup of my life-time was Italia 90. I have no memory of it being three-years-old at the time, but my brother taped a 1-hour BBC review of the tournament I must have re-watched it easily over 100 times in my childhood. The tournament seemed like the most epic, breathtaking, emotional, important thing in the world.

Two decades later I read All Played Out and through his eye-witness account I saw that the tournament was every bit as exhilarating as it had existed in my childhood imagination. As Davies writes, he was “In the heart, now, of the greatest drama on earth.” Just a wonderful book.

Book Review: Yer Joking Aren’t Ya? – The Story of Middlesbrough’s Unforgettable 1996/97 Season by Tom Flight

On 23 June 2020, Jonathan Woodgate, the third Middlesbrough FC manager in as many years, became the latest managerial casualty at the Riverside, with perennial stalwart Neil Warnock brought in to steer the Boro’ ship out of a relegation battle, which, at the time of writing, is still undecided. But whilst Middlesbrough’s recent campaign and fate are nothing to write home about, it was a very different story in the mid-90s when Boro seemingly looked to be at the start of something special, and it is this period of both promise and eventual disappointment that lifelong Middlesbrough fan Tom Flight reflects on in Yer Joking Aren’t Ya?

The book specifically picks up the story of the 1996/97 season, following the arrival of new chairman Steve Gibson, player-manager Bryan Robson, and a move from their home of 92 years, Ayresome Park, to the forerunner of the modern stadia, the Riverside. It was a season that began on a wave of optimism and ambition, with a team of colourful characters, but proved ultimately to be amongst the most topsy-turvy of campaigns in Boro’s history, ending in their relegation. Flight tells the story of this turbulent season through chapters dedicated to each month of the campaign, giving an overview of the matches and results, which are paired with accompanying chapters which focus on a specific game from each month that was pivotal to Boro’s season. It is a great format that lends itself to avoiding getting bogged down in unnecessary details whilst allowing more in-depth accounts of the moments that matter, and as such it offers a thorough but lively commentary, and Flight’s writing is always engaging and interesting.

Naturally, Flight starts in August 1996, in a game against Liverpool that marked the start of Boro’s epic season and the arrival of the mercurial Fabrizio Ravanelli – perhaps one of the most iconic figures of the North-East club for fans at large. Indeed, if you remember nothing else about Middlesbrough, you most likely remember the silver-haired marksman and his pint-sized Brazilian playmate, Juninho – the two players who featured most notably that season, for better and worse, and that consequently feature most heavily in this book.

The overview chapters are helpfully and ingeniously supplemented at the start by snapshots of Middlesbrough’s position in the table, which in themselves give a sense of the buoyancy at the outset and Boro’s steady decline. Whilst the chapters flesh out the incredible details of a largely forgotten campaign for those not associated with the Boro’ red, including the disappearance mid-season of Brazilian midfielder Emerson, who struggled to settle with his wife in the North-East, and the notorious Friday 20 December date that is etched in Boro’ minds for a virus sweeping through the squad that led to the postponement of their game against Blackburn and the eventual docking of three points that would have made the difference to Boro’s Premier League survival.

Against this backdrop, though, there are moments of real success and achievement, both collectively, with the club reaching not only one but two cup finals – the very first in their history – albeit coming out second-best each time – and individually, most notably for Brazilian wunderkind, Juninho, who has become synonymous with the club and one of those players who is generally admired across the football fraternity. Not only did Juninho scoop a Player of the Month award but also Premier League Player of the Year in that chaotic season – the only player to do so for Middlesbrough, the only Brazilian to do so and one of only five players to do so outside of the big hitters of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, not to mention the fact of doing so in a relegated team. He is rightly revered on Teesside and had that 1996/97 season not come to a crushing end with relegation, one really has to wonder how things may have turned out for Juninho’s Premier League career, for the league and Middlesbrough itself. Who knows, as this mad 2019/20 campaign comes to an end, instead of contemplating Boro’s Championship survival, we may have seen a team continuing the legacy of Juninho pushing at the right end of the Premier League, with Ravanelli as manager and Emerson happily retired in Teesside. After all, going on the 1996/97 season as Tom Flight’s book recounts it, stranger things have happened for the team from the North-East, and the author offers a memorable and enjoyable account of that most surreal of seasons in the history of Middlesbrough Football Club.

(Pitch Publishing Ltd. April 2020. Hardback 224pp)


Jade Craddock


Interview with Tom Flight, author of ‘Yer Joking Aren’t Ya? – The Story of Middlesbrough FC’s 1996/97 Season’

As football in the Premier League and the Championship prepares to return after the COVID-19 outbreak, titles, promotions, and relegations will be fought for behind closed doors. For Middlesbrough, the remaining nine games are vital as they look to ensure their survival in the Championship. Ahead of this unusual end of season, FBR caught up with Tom Flight (TF) who has released a book about an incredible season in the Boro’s history.


(FBR): Congratulations on the publication of ‘Yer Joking Aren’t Ya?’ which tells the story of the 1996/1997 season at Middlesbrough. Can you tell us a bit about your affinity with the club?

(TF): Thank you very much. My family moved to Teesside when I was two, so I grew up with them being my local team. My dad wasn’t a particularly huge football fan, but he got swept away with the optimism and all the excitement when Bryan Robson became manager. We started going to games during the 1994/95 season, the year we got promoted, and then we got a season ticket the following season which we kept for years. In the mid-90s Middlesbrough was an absolutely amazing place to be a young football fan.

(FBR): The 1980s were a difficult period financially for the club, but Middlesbrough were promoted back to the Premier League in 1994/1995, what were the feelings around the club at the time?

(TF): I remember there being a distinct buzz all season about that promotion side. I imagine the events of 1986 were still raw, but what that young side did was such an incredible achievement. When Steve Gibson became chairman in 1994 and appointed Bryan Robson, I think it felt like Boro’ were finally going to go to the next level.

(FBR): Bryan Robson was brought in as player-manager in 1994, in his first experience in a managerial role, what was the reaction to his arrival and his time at Middlesbrough?

(TF): I think it was seen as a massive coup. When Robson retired from playing for Manchester United, he was approached by a number of clubs, and Ron Atkinson was trying to bring him in as assistant at Aston Villa. Terry Venables had picked him for the assistant job for England, so Robson was definitely seen as an up-and-coming manager.

(FBR): In the first season back in the Premier League, Middlesbrough finished 12th, was there a sense of optimism at the start of the 1996/1997 season?

(TF): I’ve never experienced anything close to the optimism that I felt as a young Middlesbrough fan in the summer of 1996. Middlesbrough had started well in the 95/96 campaign, but they dropped off after Christmas, but that season really felt like a prequel ahead of what was going to happen the following season. The transfer of Juninho in October 1995 had been ground-breaking, but when we signed Fabrizio Ravanelli it was unbelievable.

(FBR): Can you tell us a bit about the story of the 1996/1997 season and its inspiration for the book?

(TF): I’ve always thought it was one of the most incredible stories of the Premier League era. How a side like Middlesbrough was able to attract top stars and compete financially with top sides in Europe was impressive in itself. But it was quite remarkable how the season unravelled. It was a campaign full of crazy stories, like Brazilian midfielder Emerson going AWOL for a month, and the debacle at Ewood Park where Boro’ were deducted three points for failing to show up for a match. At the same time, Middlesbrough were also embarking on two epic cup finals and two Wembley appearances. That one season produced more memories and incredible moments than you would normally hope to see in a decade.

(FBR): In Ravanelli and Juninho, Middlesbrough had two of the league’s most mercurial figures, both of whom were amongst the top scorers in the Premier League in 1996/1997, how did this mesh with Middlesbrough’s falling to relegation?

(TF): At the start of the season, I think Boro’ fans were just so excited by the fact we had two genuine world-class players in Ravanelli and Juninho, plus Emerson in midfield, but it soon became apparent that the side was horribly unbalanced. The defence was just a mess, not helped by a pretty severe injury crisis. Ravanelli in particular found the defence exasperating and was slagging his own side off to Italian newspapers during the season. Robson made a couple of late signings in getting goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer and Italian defender Gianluca Festa which massively improved the side at the back, but the damage had already been done.

(FBR): How is the 1996/1997 season reflected back on now? Has there been a lasting effect at all?

(TF): I’ve actually had several people message me saying that they’ve purchased the book but said they can’t bring themselves to read it and revisit those memories. Over 20 years later it still feels “too soon.” Rob Nicholls who is editor for the Middlesbrough Fanzine Fly Me To The Moon has said that Boro’ fans “lost the ability to truly let themselves go” after this season. There was so much drama and emotion and memorable moments, but for it all to end in relegation and two cup final defeats was just completely crushing. It was also a major sliding-doors moment. If we had been able to stay up, there were all sorts of rumours about who we were going to sign next (Gabriel Batistuta and Roberto Carlos were serious targets), but relegation dashed all those dreams. I think the thought of what might have been still lingers with a lot of fans today.

(FBR): Juninho left at the end of that ‘96/97 season, only to return for spells in 1999/2000 and in 2002 to 2004 and is still very much synonymous with Middlesbrough. How important was he for the club and where does he rank for you amongst the best players the team has seen?

(TF): He is the best player I’ve ever seen in a Middlesbrough shirt. When I started researching the book and watched some of the matches, I was fully prepared for my memories to be steeped in nostalgia and maybe find he wasn’t as good as I thought. To be honest, he was far better than I remembered. I’m not exaggerating when I say he could pick the ball up literally anywhere on the pitch and you’d be on the edge of your seat. He would glide past players with such grace and ease, but he was always direct, never showing off. It often felt like he was taking on the opposition almost singlehandedly. If his teammates got the ball, they would just give it straight back to him. Obviously, he was tiny, but his balance was incredible. The game is significantly less physical now, I think if he played in the modern era, he’d be unstoppable.

(FBR): Do you still follow Middlesbrough today and if so, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, how would you view their season and their ambitions for the future?

(TF): Yes, I still follow Middlesbrough. I live in the States now though, so I’m always watching or listening to games on Saturday mornings. When I get home to the UK, I usually get to a game. I’m desperate for Jonathan Woodgate to do well, but obviously we have struggled a lot this season. There have been glimpses where we’ve looked promising, and a few of the goals we’ve scored this season have been some of the best I’ve seen in years, but I think we are also the lowest scorers in the league, and the defence has hardly been covering themselves in glory. We’re definitely in a process of rebuilding, so I’m just hoping we can just stay up and then perhaps we’ll see Boro’ evolve into a more consistent side next season.

As for the future, the footballing world has changed so much. The gap between the elite and the rest is so vast now it’s almost impossible to imagine we’ll ever see players of the calibre of Juninho playing at the Riverside again. I just hope Steve Gibson is able to turn things round and get us back in the Premier League one day, and maybe have one more shot at a trophy. He’s given so much to the club, it would be great if he could have one last shot at glory.

(FBR): It’s impossible not to mention the current situation, with football suspended in England, and generally worldwide, for the last couple of months, with plans for the resumption in mid-June, how much have you missed it and what are you most looking forward to when it returns?

(TF): I’ve definitely missed it. Not only the end of the regular season, but I was also looking forward to the Euros and going to some MLS games here in the States. But at the same time I’ve quite enjoyed the excuse to indulge in looking back at classic matches and past seasons. I wrote this book because I love football nostalgia, particularly from the 90s, so I always enjoy looking back.

(FBR): And finally if you could pick one former Middlesbrough player to slot into the current team who would it be and why?

(TF): Juninho. He would be worth a fair bit in today’s market though.


Jade Craddock (for FBR)

2019/20: An Incredible Journey. Match Day 5 – Saturday 17 August 2019: Blackburn Rovers v Middlesbrough

Matchday programme cover

Running through the fixture list this particular Saturday there wasn’t much catching the eye but opted for Middlesbrough’s visit to Blackburn Rovers in the end. Both teams had got off to a slow start and neither were known for scoring lots of goals. I suspected that this may turn out to be a goalless draw, so arranged to meet my friends Frank and Michelle after the game for a curry.

Blackburn Rovers have long history in football and are featured in the recent Netflix show, The English Game. The programme centres on the period prior to the formation of the Football League in 1888 with the FA Cup exploits of Darwen and Old Etonians part of the story line. Rovers have won the league on three occasions, the last being the Premier League in 1994/95 and six FA Cups. Along with Wanderers they are the only two teams to have won the FA Cup three years in succession from 1883 through to 1886 and were awarded a commemorative shield to mark the event. They then won the Cup again in 1889/90 and 1890/91.

Jack Walker statue

Blackburn’s more recent success came under their benefactor Sir Jack Walker who invested heavily in the club to earn promotion to the new Premier League for its inaugural season in 1992/93. After finishing fourth and then runners-up, Rovers went on to winning the league in 1994/95 with a dramatic last day of the season defeat to Liverpool with Manchester United also losing that day. Sadly, Sir Jack has since passed away in 2000, but he is fondly remembered by many football fans, not just those at Ewood Park and he is commemorated with a fine bronze statue outside the ground.

Rovers winning penalty

It wasn’t a bad game and not as dull as I had feared. For Blackburn Sam Gallagher ran his heart out up and down the left wing. The old stager, Stewart Downing (all left foot) showed a few touches of class with his control and passing. At the whistle, Blackburn picked up their first Championship win of the season while extending Middlesbrough’s winless start under new boss Jonathan Woodgate. The points were settled by Danny Graham’s first-half penalty for Rovers, who had lost their first two league matches. The 34-year-old won the spot-kick when his shirt was pulled by Anfernee Dijksteel (boyish humour means I must always giggle when mentioning this name) and he stepped up to send goalkeeper Darren Randolph the wrong way. Substitute Marcus Browne struck the woodwork for Boro’ their best effort in the second half, leaving them with one point from their opening three league games. Rovers winger Stewart Downing almost scored against his old club after the break but curled a decent effort narrowly beyond the far post.


Saturday 17 August 2019

Sky Bet Championship

Blackburn Rovers 1 (Graham 25’ [pen]) Middlesbrough 0

Venue: Ewood Park

Attendance: 14,012

Blackburn Rovers: Walton, Bennett, Lenihan, Williams, Cunningham, Travis, B. Johnson, Dack (Buckley 76’), Gallagher, Downing (Rothwell 76’), Graham (Armstrong 71’)

Unused substitutes: Nyambe, Leutwiler, Bell, Evans

Middlesbrough: Randolph, Dijksteel (Tavernier 61’), Ayala, Shotten, Friend (Walker 83’), MacNair, Wing, M Johnson (Browne 70’), Howson, Fletcher, Assombalonga

Unused substitutes: Clayton, Saville, Bola, Pears


Steve Blighton

Book Review: Brian Clough – Fifty Defining Fixtures by Marcus Alton

In other books within this Amberley series the subject has either been a legendary player or a manager, but in this edition the focus is on Brian Clough who it could be argued is a rarity in having an extraordinary career in both areas of the game.

As a player Clough had an unbelievable strike rate playing for Middlesbrough and Sunderland, scoring 251 league goals from 274 games and also picked up two England caps, both in 1959. However, he had to retire following a serious knee injury sustained on Boxing Day 1962 and turned to management. Clough was in charge at Hartlepools United, Derby County, Leeds United, Brighton and Nottingham Forest, in a management career which stretched from 1965 to 1993, collecting most famously two European Cups in 1978/79 and 1979/80 with Forest.

Given this, author Marcus Alton acknowledges the mammoth task he had in bringing the book together: “It has certainly been a very tough task and this compilation contains by no means the only games that define his (Clough’s) playing and managerial career. But I hope you agree it focuses on some of the key matches…and at least, opens up debate.” And to be fair that is what is achieved by Alton. Within his selected fifty games, Alton manages to cover both Clough’s playing and management career taking in all the clubs he was at, even squeezing in games capturing his brief and unsuccessful stints at Elland Road and the Goldstone Ground.

In the style of the other books in the Amberley series, games are briefly covered using old match reports and analysis. This doesn’t provide the author with a great deal of scope to provide an in-depth exploration of Clough, but Alton still manages to convey some aspects of the antics and characteristics of ‘the best manager England never had’.

This series of books doesn’t pretend that the reader will find an in depth exploration of a player or manager, but is a starting point for wanting to find out more about the subject matter. Therefore, whilst the triumphs at Derby County and Nottingham Forest are detailed through a number of fixtures, this book isn’t one where you will find for instance a detailed analysis of the breakdown in the Taylor-Clough relationship or the health issues that he suffered during the back end of his management career at the City Ground.

If you know very little and or not read a great deal about ‘Cloughie’ this book is a useful starting point for an exploration of an incredible football figure.


Category: Reviews | LEAVE A COMMENT