MOHAN, Phillips, Whyte, Gittens. Now there’s an accident prone back four to put an icy hand of fear around the heart. They put on a shambolic display of schoolboy defending as Boro were battered 5-1 away at Aston Villa in January 1993 that prompted Lennie Lawrence to say “that defensive unit will never play together again” – although that phrase was to become his over-used answer to Steve McClaren’s “magnificent” as that season started to unravel.
That one-sided match has just featured on one of nostalgia driven satellite channel ESPN Classic’s retro rummages through the archives and despite watching the team systematically being taken apart by Big Ron’s title chasers it was compulsive viewing.
Typical Boro. You wait weeks for them to feature on Premiership Classics and when they do they get marmalised. In fairness, it was a makeshift defence on the day; Chris Morris and Kerny were injured leaving poor Lennie little choice but to push Nicky Mo to right back and give his gratitude signing Jon Gittens what had by then thankfully become a rare outing. They were tortured with an almost medieval malice by a sadistically smiling strikeforce of Dwight Yorke and Dean Saunders.
Boro’s midfield was no great shakes either to be honest. Graham Kavanagh provided the legs and Andy Peake the nouse in the centre with Willie Falconer and Tommy Wright on the flanks but the misfiring unit were overwhelmed by Villa from the off.
Up front John Hendrie and Paul Wilkinson beavered away individually but rarely combined and got very little service. Frustrating fans’ favourite Bernie Slaven wasn’t in the squad. In fact, the out of favour fence-climber wasn’t even in the reserves and was in his spell of splendid isolation, training alone in Stewart Park after relations with Lennie had broken down. An injury to Hendrie soon after would give him a brief last hurrah in the team but his number was up.
The goal came as young Craig Hignett – a ÃÂ£500,000 new signing – came off the bench totally unaffected by the paralysis that had striken the rest and scored a cracker and had two more good efforts denied. He was the only bright spark for Boro.
Although the inaugural Premier League was being sold by Sky as “a whole new ball game” this game was undeniably still an example of old football and in many ways it was a light years away from today’s game. Dwight Yorke was the only foreigner in the starting line-ups. The hardcore of both sets of fans were standing and many were smoking. There were fences. There were crush barriers. There was rust and crumbling concrete and corrugated iron with peeling paint. There were even a few donkey jackets and perm and tash combos a decade out of date.
And there were very few replica shirts on display. Now when you see a picture of a match it is hard to make out the action because the players get lost in the swathe of colour created by the identikit army of club shop loyalists. Back then the teams were more vividly picked out against a more muted crowd dressed in more neutral colours.
The only shirts to be seen seemed to be those on the pitch and they were fashion disasters. Villa were wearing a truely horrid round necked, lace up collared effort that was hastily cobbled together in an attempt to follow Man United’s yellow and green halved Newton Heath look while Boro had that awful white ICI top with black and red triangular splodges on the shoulders that looked as if they had been potato printed by the designer’s children. What a flecking mess.
Lennie looked worried. Very worried. For most of the match he had his fingers clasped to his chin and lips, partly body language betraying his anxiety but partly no doubt also to mask the cockney obscenities he must have been muttering under his breath. And Lennie, like Martin Peters Lennie was ten years ahead of his times: he started in the stands shrewdly analysing the tactical dynamics before moving pitchside to look gloomy in the dug-out instead.
Boro were torn apart and it was painful to watch. It happened a lot that season – 4-1 at Liverpool, 4-1 at Oldham, 4-0 at Chelsea, 4-1 at Palace. The early impetus of the Rioch revival was fizzling out, the team Lennie welded together on the hoof was starting to crack and the fortunes of the club were slipping ominously again. I loved it.