BY GARY THACKER
In the 1998-99 season, Middlesbrough were a second-tier club. Relegation had cost them the services of such international luminaries as Fabrizio Ravenelli and Juninho, but the efforts of manager Bryan Robson, aided and abetted by the financial backing of chairman Steve Gibson, would mean their absence from the Premier League was only brief. The season saw the arrival of the likes of Paul Gascoigne from Rangers, and Paul Merson moved to the North East from north London. Also, among the arrivals, was an Italian striker whose early games with the club promised so much, before the relationship fell into discord and recrimination.
Marco Branca had experienced an itinerant career in Italy, moving between clubs with an almost alarming regularity, seeking a more permanent home, without much apparent success. Signing professionally with the Sardinian club Cagliari, a mere four league goals in more than 50 appearances was hardly sufficient to endear him to the Gli Isolani and he moved to Udinese, before jumping back and forth between the Bianconeri Friuliani and Sampdoria across the next five seasons as each club sought, then discarded, his services with uncertain resolution. The cycle was broken with a move to Fiorentina, before another spell back in Udine. His third coming at the club produced the most prolific period of his goalscoring career to date, as he netted 22 goals in 58 league games across two seasons.
It may have been that the air in Udine only fuelled a sense of caprice in the player though, as he left the club for the third and final time in 1994, joining Parma for a less than wholly successful season before a move to Roma. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the repeated nature of his travels, the Italian capital proved to be anything but the â€˜eternal cityâ€™ for Branca though and Internazionale took him back north to Lombardy in 1996 in exchange for Marco Delvecchio.
Branca had merely scored twice in league encounters for the Giallorossi, but whatever had convinced Inter to sign him would produce dividends as a first season haul of 17 goals in just 24 matches suggested that the Nerazzuri had ignited a career that, for the most part, had failed to get out of first gear for so long. A call-up to the Italian 1996 Olympic squad followed and things seemed to be settling into a prosperous routine, but a disappointing â€˜second season syndromeâ€™ brought things back down to earth with just a half-dozen more goals to add to his tally, and when â€˜Boro came calling, Inter were happy to complete a deal.
If the start to Brancaâ€™s career at Inter had been encouraging, his arrival in â€˜Boro colours would be explosive. The first leg of the League Cup semi-final against Liverpool had seen a fighting â€˜Boro performance keep the tie alive, with a 2-1 defeat at Anfield. Back at the Riverside, the top tier club would still be favourites to progress unless Robsonâ€™s team, including their new striking acquisition, could strike early to unsettle the visitors. They would certainly achieve that, turning the tie around inside four minutes as a shade under 30,000 fans had a tantalising glimpse of the promise held out by their new striker.
Merson had already converted an early penalty after Mikkel Beck had been upended in the Liverpool penalty area to light the touch paper. Just two minutes later, and four minutes into his debut, Branca would send the fireworks into the Teesside air, racing onto a through ball that caught the static Liverpool defence out. With the composure of an assured finisher he coolly slotted the ball under David James before racing around to celebrate in front of the ecstatic home fans.
Liverpool couldnâ€™t muster anything tangible in the remainder of the game and as the â€˜Boro fans wended their way home, joyously anticipating a third cup final in the same 12-month period, they would also have been discussing the delicious prospect of a new Italian striker who could pick up the mantle of the now departed Ravanelli and drive them on to cup success and promotion. Although Branca would deliver a goalscoring ratio the envy of many, it would be for an all-too-brief period. Promotion would follow, but by that time, the laurels that garlanded the instant Italian hero would be forgotten in an acrimonious departure from the club.
All of that was for the future though and â€˜Boro fans were full of anticipation when Branca made his league debut in the all-important local Derby game against Sunderland not long afterwards. They would not be disappointed as the Italian notched a brace in a 3-1 victory. His first came after a neat pass found him clear in front of goal and despite nearly squandering the opportunity, a half-save by the visiting goalkeeper couldnâ€™t keep the ball out of the net. If the first goal was a little scrappy, his second, coming after the break was sublime. Receiving the ball on the edge of the Sunderland area, he skipped inside a defender, nutmegging him on the way, dropped a shoulder to evade a second challenge, and then fired back across goal to complete the sort of goal only a natural striker has in his locker. He now had three goals in just two â€˜Boro appearances and the home crowd were in raptures. Who missed Ravanelli now?
The goals would continue. A pair in the 6-0 demolition of Swindon Town, showed how a goalscoring striker could fire confidence into any team. A cross from the right saw the Italian arrive at the far post to fire home his first. Again though, as in the Sunderland game, his second strike would be memorable. A neat interplay between Curtis Fleming and Alun Armstrong saw the latter play the ball into the box. It dropped behind Branca, but an instant turn and overhead kick planted the ball into the corner of the net for a sumptuous goal.
Against Bury, Branca would go one better and secure a hat-trick, three goals of the sort that penalty area strikers thrive on. Nothing as spectacular as the second goal against Swindon, but tap-ins count every bit as much as those goals decorated with artistic impression. Another strike against Reading, this time firing in from the edge of the area gave Branca his seventh goal for the club now lauding him as a sensational capture. With seven goals in seemingly rapid fashion, and one commentator stating as he netted again, â€œHe never seems to miss!â€ no-one would have known that the dream start to a career in the north east of England was about to turn into a nightmare for player, club and fans.
A knee injury was at first thought to cause only a temporary hiatus in the goal spree as everyone caught their breath from the dazzling run of strikes. As fate turned its smile away from Branca though, it became increasingly clear that things were much worse. Damage to knee ligaments were thought likely to end his career and â€˜Boro sought expert medical and legal advice on the matter. The results proved to be a huge disappointment for all concerned.
With the player struggling to recover and prognoses suggesting that he may never return to full fitness,â€™Boro reluctantly decided to cancel the last twelve months of his contract with the club on medical grounds. Unsurprisingly, Branca fiercely disputed the decision and lodged an appeal. In August 1999, the Premier League rejected the appeal and Brancaâ€™s attempt to resurrect his career on Teesside failed. In a statement, the governing body declared that, â€œThe board was satisfied that Middlesbrough had acted properly in dealing with this case and there was no basis for complaint.â€
It had clearly been a difficult decision for the club. Aside from any personal issues for the player himself, it meant a sad acceptance that the brief goalscoring spree would now be written off for all time as a glorious and effective, but sadly ephemeral, contribution to the clubâ€™s ultimately successful pursuit of promotion. Although perhaps Branca was the major loser in the outcome, itâ€™s safe to say that, save for the lawyers who always seem to prosper in such circumstances regardless of the outcome, there were no real winners. The club pointed out that a number of orthopaedic surgeons had independently concluded that the strikerâ€™s knee would not be strong enough to stand up to the physical rigours of Premier League football. The clubâ€™s Chief Executive, Keith Lamb, explained: â€œWe were always confident that the Premier League, on submission of the true facts and medical evidence available, would find conclusively that we acted properly with regard to Marco and his injury.â€
Despite the weight of evidence and the decision of the Premier League however, Branca would still hold out that the decision and resulting action was inappropriate. A reported potential Â£500,000 in lost wages is inevitably a powerful stimulus to fuel determination. Branca was not ready to concede, and once lawyers and governing bodies become involved, inevitably thereâ€™s a likelihood of decisions swaying back and forth.
Branca reportedly received support from FIFA who, apparently, ruled that Middlesbrough had “acted unlawfully” in nullifying his contract. Amid reports suggesting that FIFA had ordered Middlesbrough to pay up or face the possibility of being ejected from all competitions next season, the club stated they were in discussions with the world governing body. The clubâ€™s official website reported at the time a club spokesman stating “We are in discussions with FIFA in order to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.” Dave Allen underscored the clubâ€™s position. “We have always had and continue to have 100% support from both the FA and the Premier League over this matter.” He would also say that “At all times we have only acted in the best interests of Marco Branca and his long-term health and welfare, taking into account the medical evidence and the advice of two orthopaedic surgeons.”
Branca would see out his playing days with periods at FC Luzern and Italian lower-league club Monza before retiring in 2001. Whether this time proved anything to anybody about fitness or otherwise to play in then Premier League is open to debate. What remains clear though is that a startling introduction to English football that seemed to suggest a glorious period of goalscoring and the rise of a folk hero for the fans of Middlesbrough eventually turned to dust through an injury and a series of disputes that followed. Whilst lawyers and governing bodies decided the outcome of contractual wrangling and financial matters, a persisting sadness exists for club and player as to what might have been had that injury not occurred.
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