In the mid-1990s, Middlesbrough had a bright, young manager in Bryan Robson and changed the Premier League landscape with signings such as Juninho and Fabrizio Ravanelli.
Despite relegation in the 1996-97 season, the Riverside Stadium became a hotbed of maverick, unique talents. Paul Merson and Paul Gascoigne starred in the second tier to fire the club back to the top flight at the first attempt ahead of the 1998-99 season.
In the following seasons, Paul Ince, World Cup winner, former Real Madrid star Christian Karembeu and former Lazio and Juventus forward Alen Boksic moved to the North East under new manager Steve McClaren.
Ahead of the 2003-04 season, Sir Alex Ferguson’s former assistant at Manchester United needed both depth, to cope with the inevitably busy schedule, and quality, if the club was to avoid relegation and instead move towards the top half of the table after a 12th-placed finish in 2002-03.
Step forward, Gaizka Mendieta.
He had moved from Valencia to Lazio for €47.7 million in 2001, after serving the club for almost a decade as a diminutive, agile and tricky advanced midfielder.
His move to Rome was not a success, perhaps because of the pressure on him to replace both Juan Sebastian Veron and Pavel Nedved, but his performances earned him a loan move to Barcelona for the following campaign.
After a sixth-placed finish in La Liga, he was allowed to move once again, and McClaren’s Boro saw the benefit of signing an esteemed international with heaps of experience and still plenty left to give on the pitch, as Robson had years before him.
He signed on loan from Lazio, with only a season left to run on his contract in Italy’s capital.
Boro won their first major trophy after 129 years by beating Bolton Wanderers 2-1 in the League Cup final at the Millenium Stadium. This came during a season of stability, which, for all of their talent, Ravanelli and co. failed to offer. Mendieta played 31 times, patrolling the midfield with poise and unrivalled control.
With qualification for the 2004-05 edition of the UEFA Cup secured – which would be the club’s first foray into a major European competition – McClaren had to add numbers to his squad, to cope with the demands of congested fixtures and travels across Europe for the UEFA Cup.
Therefore, signing Mendieta permanently on a free transfer was one of the easier decisions he had to make during his time at the club.
Unfortunately, his Middlesbrough story took a sad turn. In an innocuous challenge with Patrick Berger as Portsmouth visited the Riverside in October 2004, he suffered a knee ligament injury and required surgery, which sidelined him for the majority of the 2004-05 campaign.
He made only seven Premier League appearances, and featured only once in the UEFA Cup as his side faced the likes of Lazio, Villarreal and Sporting CP on a journey to the fourth round on debut.
He returned for the 2005-06 season with the club again in the UEFA Cup after a seventh-placed finish the previous campaign. McClaren drafted him into the side as quickly as possible, despite the signing of Barcelona midfielder Fabio Rochemback, but he, again, struggled with injuries.
Between September 2005 and February 2006 he spent three spells on the sidelines because of calf muscle strains, which limited him to 17 league appearances.
He did, though, play six times on McClaren’s side’s journey to the UEFA Cup final, including in both legs against Roma in an away-goals aggregate victory.
He was, however, sidelined by a metatarsal fracture for the semi-finals stage against Steaua Bucharest – in which Boro recovered from a 1-0 loss away in Romania in the first leg to win 4-3 on aggregate – and the final in Eindhoven, which ended in a 4-0 defeat to Sevilla.
Nevertheless, he was kept on by McClaren for the 2006-07 campaign. A measure of the faith shown in him is that Massimo Maccarone, Mark Viduka and Ray Parlour, who had all featured regularly in the glorious run to the UEFA Cup final, were allowed to leave the club.
He played his final game for the club, away at Everton, in December 2006, as his injury problems began to take their toll and limit his mobility. Despite reported interest from LA Galaxy and various Spanish clubs, he opted to finish his career in England.
All told, he had a glistening, exciting career. Silverware is often a guarantee of a player’s position in football folklore, but a lack of thereof does not necessarily deny a claim to the same status.
His only tangible rewards were solitary Copa del Rey, Supercopa de Espana and UEFA Intertoto Cup medals from his time at Valencia, but he had played a part as clubs punched well above their weight and came so very close to unprecedented glory.
In the 1998-99 season, he scored in both legs against Barcelona and against Real Madrid, with a stunning volley after turning and flicking the ball over his head, as Claudio Ranieri’s side during their run to Copa del Rey glory.
He had finished as a two-time UEFA Champions League runner-up at the Mestalla before his Middlesbrough side came within 90 minutes of European silverware, which is a distant dream for the Riverside faithful these days.
Above all else, his decision to enjoy his career at the very top of football, rather than conforming to the ideal of dropping down divisions or moving to a traditionally slower-paced, less-exerting game, must be applauded.
Would the UEFA Cup final of 2006 had panned out differently if Mendieta was available to Middlesbrough? It is hard to think anything but yes.