Juninho ‘the little fella’ Paulista signed for Middlesborough in October 1995, in what still remains one of the greatest transfer coups in Premier League history.
To put things into perspective in 1995 Juninho had just won the Brazilian League with São Paulo as well as being voted Brazilian Player of the Year. He was a Brazilian International with the reputation as one of the up and coming stars of World Football.
Most observers expected to see the talented youngster end up gracing football pitches in Madrid or Milan however he opted for an eyebrow raising move to the North East of England and Middlesbrough. A decision the people of Middlesborough will be eternally grateful for.
Juninho’s signing was greeted with hysteria on Teesside and 5,000 Boro fans showed up at the Riverside to greet their new hero.
With Juninho standing at a tiny 5 ft 5 inches most expected the youngster to struggle with the rigours of English Football, not to mention the cultural and climatic contrast between sunny São Paulo and Middlesborough.
They couldn’t have been more wrong however as the Little Fella and his family immersed themselves in local life. Stories soon began to spread of him stopping to have kickabouts with kids in the park and the people of Teeside began to fall in love with him.
On the pitch Juninho immediately started to show Boro, and Premier League fans in general, what all the fuss was about. He made his Boro debut on the 4th of November 1995 and assisted Jan Age Fjortofts goal in a 1-1 draw with Leeds.
Juninho was a attacking midfielder who could shoot off either foot and had an eye for that killer pass in the final third. His main asset though was his dribbling ability, he glided across the turf and it seemed like the ball stuck to his foot, able to shoot or pass whilst travelling at breakneck speed. So often he would drop deep and take on a couple of defenders before either getting a shot off himself or sliding a perfect through ball to one of his teammates. As a football obsessed 11 year old, I just couldn’t get enough of watching the little magician play.
It may be hard to believe considering how boring Boro have been to watch in some recent seasons, but back then, under the management of former Man United and England captain Bryan Robson, the Teessiders were one of the Leagues great entertainers.
This was around the time of the first real large scale influx of talented foreign players into the Premier League. Juninho was joined in the Boro side by Italian superstar Fabrizio Ravenelli, Gerry-Curled Brazilian Emerson as well as 72 cap Brazilian international full back Branco to name but a few.
The 1995/96 season would see Middlesborough finish a respectable 12th in the Premier League with the 22-year-old contributing two goals in 22 games, unfortunately there are no reliable assist stats going back that far. In his first season there were plenty of flashes of brilliance but Middlesborough’s star player understandably struggled with consistency. That would change the following season as the Little Fella would light up the Premier League with a succession of world class displays.
Middlesborough’s 1996/97 season will go down as one of the craziest ever by a Premier League club. They reached the final of both the FA Cup and League Cup, heartbreakingly losing out on both occasions to Chelsea and Leicester. More heartbreak was soon to follow however as Boro where relegated due, in part, to the fact that they had been docked 3 points for postponing an early season fixture with Blackburn on short notice, because of what manager Bryan Robson claimed was an inability to field a team because of injuries and illness.
Many of Boro’s and other Premier League club’s foreign players where accused of viewing coming to England as nothing more than a brief exercise in fattening their wallets. One player this could never be levelled at was Juninho, the now iconic photo of him lying distraught on the Elland Road pitch after a 1-1 draw with Leeds consigned Boro to relegation showed just how much playing for Boro meant to the little Brazilian.
Juninho had scored 13 goals in all competitions for Boro and was voted PFA Player of the Year, an amazing achievement considering this is the only time the award has gone to a player from a relegated team.
With the 1998 World Cup on the horizon, Juninho decided playing in Division One would harm his chances of playing in the World Cup. He left Boro in a £13 million move to Atletico Madrid in June 1997.
Things never quite took off for him in Madrid however and in early 1998 he broke his leg which saw him miss the World Cup anyway.
In the 1999/2000 season Atletico loaned Juninho back to Middlesbrough, much to the delight of the Boro fans. A permanent transfer to Boro was mooted but never happened and he returned to Athletico before being again loaned out, this time back to Brazil to Vasco de Gama and Flamengo.
In the summer of 2002 Juninho had played his way back into the Brazil squad and won the World Cup along with superstars Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo. Then in the summer of 2002 Boro fans got what they had yearned for since the day the Little Fella left Teesside, a permanent return from Atletico was agreed in a £6 million deal.
In all honesty Juninho had never quite recaptured his mesmerising form of the 1996/97 season after his leg break. He would play 2 more seasons for Boro and in 2004 he was part of the Boro team that won the League Cup. The first and only major trophy in the club’s 141 year history, an achievement an emotional Juninho would describe as meaning more to him than winning the World Cup with Brazil.
Juninho moved to Celtic in June 2004 on a free transfer and would retire from the game in 2008.
Upon his retirement he had played for São Paulo, Vasco de Gama, Flamengo, Palmerias, Middlesbrough, Atletico Madrid, Celtic and Sydney FC.
There is no doubt however that the club of his heart was Middlesbrough. He is widely considered Boro’s greatest player of the modern era and still returns to Teeside regularly to watch his old side play. His name is still spoken in revered tones on Teeside from Boro fans who did not only fall in love with Juninho the player but also with Juninho the man. Juninho, a true Middlesbrough Legend.