Mustoe: Boro's Robbie Reliant
AS PART of an occasional series over the summer I'll be bigging up Boro's legion of overlooked legends and unsung heroes as previously outlined and 'crowd-sourced' with the help of blog readers here last month. It starts with a look at Robbie Mustoe
The series isn't routinely going on the paper's website but following a populist clamour to read part one of this exciting series I've decided to stick it on here for readers based outside of Gazetteshire. So, read on...
IT'S NOT all about big names and goal-getters, fans' favourites and ever-popular heroes with their own chants.
Every successful side needs a platform of under-stated excellence, a few stalwarts who put in solid but unspectacular shifts of week in, week out, unfussy reliability. Here we salute the ever-present first team fixtures, the consistent but inconspicuous grafters who rarely grabbed headlines or last gasp winners.
NO 1: ROBBIE MUSTOE
YOU CAN'T imagine too many starstruck kids queuing to get the name "Mustoe" on the back of their Boro shirt.
And, to be fair, for most of his career on Teesside the industrious engine room did face some stiff competition in the club shop shirt sales chart.
In a dramatic decade for the club, Mustoe spent almost every summer having to face up to the challenge of household names, internationals and superstars, signed to take his place in midfield.
And time and time again he saw them off, gradually easing them aside with low-key displays of understated excellence that made him a crucial - if often over-shadowed - member of the squad.
While Mustoe was at Boro, he saw the regular arrival of a string of new faces, each with bigger price-tags, reputations and expectations. And he always battled his way back from the bench to retake his place in the first team.
Craig Hignett and Bryan Robson took his place at Ayresome, only for the tenacious Mustoe to work his way back in.
Then, at the Riverside, the battle became even bigger as he went head-to-head with the likes of Nick Barmby, Emerson, Andy Townsend, Paul Gascoigne, Paul Ince and Christian Karembeu.
But while he would never claim to match their potential for match-winning magic or top-level pedigree, he more often than not edged them aside to regain a slot with relentless workrate and consistency.
And it wasn't just team-mates Mustoe had to get past. Managers needed to be won over and convinced too. First Lennie Lawrence, then Robson, then Steve McClaren had set out planning to replace him, before being persuaded by performance levels that he had an integral role to play in their first team.
Mustoe had arrived for what then looked a steep £375,000 for a youngster from Oxford under Colin Todd in the summer of 1990. A dozen years and over 450 games later that looked like a bargain buy.
On his arrival, he was initially overshadowed by the established heroes of the Rioch team and early impact of fellow new signing John Hendrie. And his low-key off-the-field manner and cool temperament on the pitch meant it was hard for him to make an instant impact and carve out an image among the fans.
But he was a slow burner. Soon he was earning applause, if not adulation, for steady shows and winning kudos for the odd iconic moment - two goals to help knock Newcastle out of the League Cup did a power of good.
He beavered away and gradually won fans over. By the time of his departure people may still not have been buying the shirt in droves but he was universally respected by Boro fans and players alike.
Dependable Mustoe was more than just a midfield water-carrier with good engines, closing down and snapping into tackles - although he did that unglamorous job with commendable enthusiasm.
He was actually a very good player. His energy helped him be an effective holding midfielder but also meant he was an equally adept addition to the attack, surging forward to offer support in the final third and score the occasional goal.
He had a good first touch, great vision and excellent distribution and, in the Riverside years especially, he combined well with some of the thoroughbreds to make Boro an effective passing side.
Alongside Jamie Pollock he proved a solid foundation for the Midget Gems pairing of Hignett and Barmby in the early Premier League days.
Then later he worked well in a similar set-up alongside Paul Ince as Robson rebuilt and looked to provide the ammunition for Alen Boksic.
In between he was a dependable, rock-solid presence in the middle that helped hold the unbalanced team together during the erratic Foreign Legion relegation season, a shield to cover for Emerson's spells of walkabout.
He was a regular in the teams that battled to three Wembley finals in just over a year. He played in both League and FA Cup finals in the heartbreak season of 1997 and was again in action at the Twin Towers for a second League Cup outing the following term.
After more than a decade of service and a well deserved testimonial Robbie left. A season followed at Charlton Athletic, before his professional playing career came to a close with Sheffield Wednesday.
After that he coached in Stateside college soccer in Boston, Massachusetts, before taking up a job as a pundit at US sports network ESPN covering Champions League and top flight football across the continent for the sizeable US expat audience. The broadcaster has now moved into Europe and covers the Premier League too.
Initially derided with a collective cry of "Who?" among the audience and establishment, he has grown into his role to become a respected regular commentator, nudging aside some bigger names in the gantry with his consistently high levels of research and accessible and well informed analysis. Which is a fitting echo of his playing career.
Now, in reality TV style, let's see some of his best bits...
AND AS mighty Germany march towards Euro glory (and to mark my commitment to recycling) here's another bit of retrospective navel-gazing that I meant to put on-line last week but never quite got round to.... "the German" and what might have been.
As previously discussed I am a keen admirer of the German game - indeed, a founder member of the feared tongue in cheek ultra group the "Teesside Krauts" - so must declare an interest. Last time I mentioned that I was denounced as Middlesbrough's Lord Haw Haw and told to go back to Berlin. LOL, as I believe the young people say.
So I don't do that "two world wars and one world cup" or "ten German bombers" thing. I grew up in Germany and used to go and watch the mighty DSC Arminia Bielefeld. They like us. They don't reciprocate that "bitter international rivalry" we have with them. They save that for the Dutch. And hey, stereotype fans, they have a good sense of humour!
There are a lot of similarities between the two nations and two games (something the English do not like to admit ) and for us at least, there is much to learn.
Mittlesburg Am Rhine? Boro And The German
SIX years ago this week Boro were locked in a bitter war of words with the League Managers' Association over the appointment of badgeless boss Gareth Southgate.
Gareth is now a respected TV pundit dissecting the tactical machinations of teams in international and Champions League games and was recently appointed supremo of all FA youth development programmes so must be considered to have passed his exams - although his on the job training at Boro wasn't entirely successful.
Many will still point to his troubled tenure as the starting point of long sickening slide backwards for Boro that has taken the club from the glories of Eindhoven to treading water in the Championship.
But the time to knock Southgate is long gone.
I only raise his stewardship because apart from Southgate - and Martin O'Neill who couldn't agree terms and conditions or a transfer kitty with Boro - one of the other candidates for the job was "the German."
Teesside was buzzing as news spread that a top German coach with an incredible CV but had put in a written application for the Riverside hot-seat citing his desire for the challenge of managing in England.
The German, who it was whispered had won the Champions League, was setting out a battleplan to transform Boro - then on the back of a recent trophy win and successive years in the UEFA Cup - into a major European power. How exciting was that? It was like an episode of Dream team. But it was TRUE.
The name was never publicly revealed back then. It was widely rumoured at the time to be Ottmar Hitzfeld who had won the European Cup with both Borussia Dortmund and Bayern and no-one in the club would deny this. Or confirm it. They just obliquely referred to "the German."
Boro big wigs later told us in passing that "the German" was in fact Felix Magath, an experienced and successful coach with an unimpeachable record. He was a Bundesliga winner with Bayern Munich who had run out of steam in Bavaria and was looking for a new club.
He was seriously considering Boro. He had plans. Ambitions. He thought he would be a good match. It never came off and instead he went to Wolfsburg - one of German's middling clubs outside the Magic Circle - and guided them first into the Champions League then later to the title.
For a second a radical departure was possible - but Steve Gibson promptly back-heeled the move. He said he didn't want to turn the club into "Middlesbrough am Rhine" with an army of German speaking Teutonic coaches and nutritionists and scouts invading Hurworth and reshaping Boro along continental lines and you can see his point: football culture is a fragile construct full of nuance and wholesale importation of an alien approach has rarely worked.
But watching Germany sweep to a clean sweep in the Euros with a young team playing precise penetrating football who can't help wonder 'what if?
Germany failed to qualify for the knockout stages of the Euros in 2000 and immediately the national federation launched and nuts and bolts review of the entire structure from club academies up and instituted far reaching changes in youth development - similar skill-centred moves were afoot in Spain at the same time - which were taken up right across the Bundesliga.
German football has been on the up since then with a fresh crop of hot-housed talent sweeping England aside first in the Under-21 European Championships and then the senior squad at the 2010 World Cup. They already look ominous in the current tournament.
"The German" would have arrived at Hurworth with that revolution in full swing and fully aware of the burgeoning talent in his home country.
If you squint a bit you can just see a scenario where a re-engineered Boro may have signed the likes of Schweinsteiger, Ozil and Podolski. Or if not them, starlets of similar ability, attitude and athleticism.
Sigh. Where could we have been if we had taken a different route away from the debris of Eindhoven? That's the kind of thing I muse about while watching the Euros.
The English - or at least the patriotically blinded and proudly parochial - may hate to consider this, but we have a lot to learn from Germany, and not just on the pitch.
German football has community and fan-based ownership models and strictly regulated governance models at clubs that ensures a Portsmouth or a Blackburn couldn't happen.
Yes, they have their big clubs - dominant Bayern are a Manchester United juggernaut financially and culturally and are similarly widely hated among 'real' supporters nationwide - but the economy is not completely distorted. It is a competitive league that has produced a string of different winners in a spell when the Premiership has become a closed cartel that has priced out ambitious challengers.
And it has a vibrant fan culture with engaged groups involved in club affairs, with massive safe standing terraces in well designed and engineered fan friendly new stadiums that help create a real atmosphere. As opposed to an opaque, unaccountable structure that freezes supporters out of all but the most trivial areas of the game. Sit down, shut up and give us your money.
And even at the top they have affordable pricing structures - and integrated free matchday transport systems - that do not price out ordinary supporters. Much in the German model is to be admired. And emulated. Certainly it has far more progressive elements within it that the current English model of naked profiteering by clubs eager to milk alienated fans of every penny possible, a model seemingly beyond control.
And with a little twist of fate Boro may have been ahead of the curve.