My football season ended at Hillheads, a sea fret blowing in, the air so cold you could see your breath. May on the North Sea coast. The PA played Fly Like An Eagle by the Steve Miller Band and Durham City, needing a draw to stay up, played with all the urgency of a teenage boy walking to a double physics lesson. The pitch was bumpy, the crowd distracted by radio reports from Villa Park and the Stadium of Light. Bay won 4-0, the final goal bringing my total in matches featuring Northern league teams to 120 for the season. Four goals per game at a cost of £174 and not a single 0-0. High sixes all-round, as they say in Alston.
The blog now goes into summer recess. Thanks again for all kind comments, retweets, FB postings, web links and the like. They are very much appreciated.
Words of thanks to all the people I've watched football with this season and whose company, generosity of spirit and detailed knowledge of the playing careers of obscure 1980s footballers has played such a big part in my enjoyment of it: Ian, Gary, Phil, Steve, David, Michael, Andy, Naggs, Jimmy, Kev, John, Duncan, the Two Petes, Martin and the Professor.
In honour of Boro's promotion here's a slightly wistful piece about Juninho's second departure from Teesside.
In mid-afternoon the players' tunnel at The Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough is shaded by the West Stand. Last Saturday Boro's Brazilian midfielder, Juninho did what he always does before running onto the field. The 27 year old dipped one knee, touched the turf by the touchline with his right hand and then crossed himself before passing from the shadow into the sunlight. It may be the last time home fans see that characteristic gesture. Juninho's loan spell from Atletico Madrid, the club he left Teesside for in a £12 million deal in 1997, comes to an end at Goodison Park at the weekend. No one, including the 1994 Brazilian Footballer of the Year, knows if the club plan to make the move permanent, or not.
In his last full season at Middlesbrough Juninho scored 15 times in 47 appearances and Optma rated him the most effective player in the Premiership, way ahead of his nearest rivals Gianfranco Zola and Eric Cantona. He was named Premiership Player of the Year and finished second to his friend Zola in the Football Writers' version of the award. The response to what could have been his last game in this country was muted to say the least, a lap of honour in a half empty stadium, hardly a headline in the national press.
Juninho plainly wants to stay in England. A cynic might say he has little to go back to. Atletico are heading for their first relegation in 60 years, government appointees now administer the financial running of the club, there is a nasty fascist element in the crowd . Despite the fact that Jesus Gil is facing charges of fraud the former-Mayor of Marbella has recently returned to the club as president. A man who enjoys turbulence so much he might have done better in white water canoeing than football, Gil announced his comeback in characteristic fashion, "My name is Jesus, not Jesus Christ, but I will try to perform a miracle". Past performance suggests this is less likely to involve loaves and fishes than the sacking of the odd manager or twelve. No wonder the little man from Sao Paulo says he feels "comfortable" on Teesside.
The supporters are more ambivalent than might be expected about the future of the player they voted the greatest in the club's history three years ago. The chant of "Sign On Juninho" (a phrase that seems less open to misinterpretation when shouted than it does in print) may have echoed round the
Riverside Stadium on Saturday, but a poll published in club fanzine Fly Me To The Moon found 40% of respondents thought Boro shouldn't pay the £5.9 million asking price.
Many feel the Brazilian has not recovered from the destruction wrought on his ankle by Celta Vigo defender Michel Salgado in 1998. Atletico appear to agree. When Juninho signed a five year contract at the Estadio Vicente Calderon the Spaniards said that anyone who wanted to lure him away would have to pay £36 million. Now he is on offer for less than a sixth of that sum.
The Teesside club too seem to share the doubts. Since his return in September Juninho has been used sparingly. Explaining why he had kept the Brazilian on the bench for much of March and April, Robson was adamant that player simply wasn't creating enough to justify being given a free role.
Fans, forever programmed for conspiracy (And why not? Down the years Middlesbrough have displayed an aptitude for upsetting their greatest stars - Wilf Mannion and Brian Clough are two others the club has fallen out at one time or other- that rivals that of Alfred Hitchcock), have suspected more convoluted motives. Some feel that the ridicule that poured down on the manager's head after he substituted Juninho against Wimbledon hardened his heart against the Brazilian. Others that in a tactic favoured in carpet bazaars across the Middle East the club are deliberately attempting to force down Atletico's asking price by feigning a lack of interest in the product.
Times have changed, of course, and not just for the Brazilian. Juninho's arrival to the accompaniment of a samba band from Stockton-on Tees and the whirring of cameras from around the world in 1995 was more than just a triumph for Bryan Robson and Middlesbrough, it was a coup for the Premiership. These days we are blase about top foreign players signing for English clubs. Back then it was regarded as an inexplicable phenomenon on a par with the Mary Celeste or Kenny Cunningham's hairstyle.