While this weekend’s game against Hull City will not necessarily signal a return to better days for Middlesbrough FC, it will certainly bring back the bearer of some good memories. Hull’s team could well feature veteran midfielder Nick Barmby, who scored three goals for the Tigers this season.
While the Barmby of today is a wily figure used in spurts and lacking killer pace, in his younger years he was a dynamic attacking force in the early years of the Riverside Revolution. Barmby was one of English football’s young up-and-coming stars when Bryan Robson shelled out a then club record $5.25 million pounds to bring the player north from Tottenham Hotspur.
Barmby made an instant impact at Middlesbrough and combined with another player short in stature if not talent. Barmby combined well with Boro legend Craig Hignett to form an attacking combination that became affectionately known by Boro fans as “the Midget Gems.”
Barmby and Hignett were inspirational in the game that opened the Riverside Stadium. The very thought of the Chelsea game brings a smile to this author's face and makes the current times seem all the more sad. While the prevalent cynicism and “same old Boro” conversations currently are reaching fever pitch throughout the town, back in 1995 for Barmby’s Boro home debut things were very different.
Middlesbrough had closed Ayresome Park by winning the Division One title and fans had been monitoring the construction of what would become the BT Cellnet Riverside Stadium. People drove to the site just to look at the steel skeleton of a new era. Nowadays, it is not easy to get fans into the finished stadium on a game day.
Such was the optimism around the town that when the fixture list revealed the visitors would be Chelsea and Dutch legend Ruud Gullit, most Boro fans were optimistic of us christening the ground with a win.
As a fan, I remember being filled with joy and optimism, but the nerves kicked in as the game approached. Could we really beat Chelsea? The answer was yes, and Nick Barmby was a key figure in that game. As half time approached, Barmby tore through the Chelsea defense and squared the ball to Hignett, who smashed the ball home for the first competitive goal the stadium. The gleeful celebrations of Hignett after that strike will live long in the memories of all Boro fans who were at the game.
Halftime was bouncing in the fancy new concourses as fans drank and munched on food that tasted sweet despite being nowhere near the standard of the Ayresome Park meat pies.
In the second half, the Boro brilliance continued, and our lead was doubled when Barmby set up Aeroplane impersonating dive merchant Jan Aage Fjortoft to make the score 2-0. The final whistle blew, and a new era had dawned. I remember looking at my friend Chris Pearson after the game, and we knew we had saw something special. We had saw Boro destroy Chelsea in a stadium that was light years above what we had grew up accustomed to.
What we didn’t know was just how far the Boro would go. A European final, a major trophy and a seventh place Premier League finish would all follow in a golden era for the club.
Boro are down right now, but we have undoubtedly been up, and Nick Barmby played a part in those successes. He may be cheered today, he may be booed, but this one fan would like to say thank you.