Blast from the Past no.31: Emerson

Reviving the Premier League players you forgot existed…

Anyone familiar with the film Coming to America will know that, despite being an effortlessly smooth customer with irresistible hair, the Soul Glo guy is not to be trusted. It was a warning that Middlesbrough fans should have heeded when they attended Willie Maddren’s testimonial in August 1996, not that anyone could really blame them for failing to make that connection at the time.

The most striking man on the Cellnet Riverside pitch that day was Emerson, a beautiful Brazilian with a glistening 1980s perm uncannily similar to the one seen in the Eddie Murphy comedy. A recent £4m signing from Porto, Emerson didn’t just look the part; he also boasted the kind of Samba skills that had already sent Boro fans head over heels for his compatriots Juninho and Branco.

“I was extremely impressed. He was strong, could get past players, tackle, pass and had a great shot on him. I thought £4m was cheap and Porto had been robbed,” recalled one attendee on the ComeOnBoro website.

Boro’s opponents that day were Inter Milan, who made Willie Maddren’s testimonial a more glamorous occasion than some may have expected it to be. But that was very much in keeping with the times on Teesside, where the silver-topped Italian goal machine Fabrizio Ravanelli had also rocked up that summer. The club was dripping with glamour, money and, in Emerson’s case, hair product.

All three were on show as Bryan Robson’s side drew 3-3 with Liverpool in an opening day thriller; Ravanelli got a hat-trick, but it was Emerson who pulled the strings in midfield. The Brazilian scored his first Boro goal in their next home match, a 4-1 demolition of West Ham, which was followed by a 4-0 demolition of Coventry. Things on Teesside had never been so sexy.

“It’s the overall ability that’s outstanding from him. He’s got a bit of everything,” drooled Robson after Emerson expertly anchored Boro to a win at Everton that propelled them into the top six.

“Emerson was a fantastic player for us,” agreed one fan. “Well, the first couple of months anyway.”

Unfortunately, a couple of months do not maketh a season. By mid-September Boro’s form began to veer south, and Emerson looked particularly flaky.

“Once the first leaves of autumn fell, his form went down with them,” said one Boro fan poetically. “Emerson was a t*** who failed to show the club and fans the respect they deserved,” said another, less poetically.

There are various theories for the midfielder’s drastic demise: he was unsettled by interest from Barcelona, he didn’t like the weather, his wife thought Teesside wasn’t as nice as the postcards had made out.

Whatever the reason, Emerson took it upon himself to go AWOL around the time of a reported £6m bid from the Nou Camp. When he returned to the north-east the spring in his step had gone, even if the spring in his hairdo remained.

“Speed and turn of an oil tanker, played with 50 per cent effort. Had approximately 180 minutes of decent football for Boro. That’s all you need to know,” summarised one fan.

Emerson had been transformed almost overnight from one of the Premiership’s outstanding players to one of its biggest liabilities. Yet still Boro fans kept faith that their side’s raw ability would pull them through a season that lurched from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again. And back again.

By April, they were in the thick of a survival battle and two cup finals - none of which ended well. They remain the only team in history to lose the FA Cup final, the league cup final and get relegated in the same season. It also remains the pound-for-pound most exciting season in English football history. Amidst it all, Emerson was a frustrating enigma.

“I remember him playing well for about the first 10 games and scoring some good goals. I also remember him being a total w***** who treated the club like s*** and let the fans down,” said another angry Teessider.

Not only had Emerson’s form deserted him, worst of all he looked as if his heart wasn’t in it. Nowadays he is cast as a villain, a status that has left a legacy of fantastical rumours.

These include: Emerson nipping out of training because he needed a haircut and returning seven days later because he had to go to London to get it; Emerson getting a late-night chicken and mushroom pizza from a local takeaway while wearing some Puma flip-flops with his name written on them in gold; Emerson squirting a McDonald’s milkshake into a homeless man’s face and then “running off laughing hysterically to himself”; unlikeliest of all, Emerson being described by Vinnie Jones as the hardest player he’d ever faced.

While none of these facts can be verified, there is at least some YouTube footage attesting to Emerson’s enormous talent.

A rocket strike against north-east rivals Sunderland in the final Roker Park derby was probably his best moment in a Boro shirt. He followed it up the following season with a near-identical strike at the Stadium of Light, but by that point both clubs had been relegated and Emerson was deeply unhappy. That Christmas, he returned to Brazil and stated that he would not return. The club sold him to Tenerife in January 1998, but his career afterwards was unremarkable.

“It’s sad that such potential wasn’t fully realised. He could have been so much more for the Boro,” lamented one fan. Instead, Emerson is remembered as a gifted player who let his team down when they needed him most.

If the Coming to America hold-up scene was a metaphor for Middlesbrough’s relegation battle, Juninho is Prince Akeem - the hero who put his body on the line - while Emerson is the Soul Glo man, cowering under a table as the action unfolds around him.

And if you haven’t even seen this film, instead just take away the simple moral of this story : never trust a footballer with a glistening 1980s perm, unless it is the 1980s.

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