You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. That is exactly what happened to one of the heroes of Midddlesbrough FC’s promotion winning side of the 2015/16 season. So settle down, grab yourself a cuppa and retrace the story of a playmakers fall from grace. This a tale of joy and despair, of magic, malice and dodgy DMs.
This is the rise and fall of Gastón Ramírez.
When he walked through the door at Boro in the January transfer window of 2016, Gastón Ramírez didn’t enter to the fanfare normally reserved for a number 10 with Premier League pedigree and the luxury of previously being Southampton’s record signing before the arrival of Virgil Van Dijk in the previous summer.
In fact, there were *some* reservations around the Uruguayan who had only played 28 minutes of league football for the Saints so far that season, having struggled to force his way into the team following a number of niggly injuries and a spell on loan at Hull City in the previous campaign that had only led to relegation and one goal in twenty two games.
However, the Reds were in major need of a creative spark to give their promotion hopes the final push it needed to get over the line in the second half of the season and Aitor Karanka had earmarked the attacking midfielder as the man for the job. The team was coming off back-to-back defeats without a goal and had a three way fight on their hands with Burnley and Brighton for the automatic promotion spots.
Everything else in the team was in place to win promotion – the defence was breaking records seemingly game by game and the midfield duo of Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton was one of the best the Championship had ever seen -they just needed the final piece of the jigsaw to support Stewart Downing and Albert Adomah in creating chances for the likes of Cristhian Stuani and David Nugent.
Could Gastón Ramírez be that final piece? Well, he didn’t wait long to show the Boro faithful that he could be that and so much more.
If his first two games, lifeless draws at Milton Keynes and Leeds, exemplified the issues that threatened the clubs promotion hopes then Ramírez’s home debut against Cardiff was the ultimate showcase of why he’d been chosen as the man to revitalise the Riverside.
In a 3-1 victory that isn’t discussed enough in that crazy period of comebacks and rollercoaster games in 2016, including *that* Fabio banger and a missed Grant Leadbitter penalty (I know, right), the Uruguyan mesmerised the crowd and Cardiff defenders alike. Involved in all three goals, as well as winning the penalty, Ramírez looked exactly like he was meant to; he was different gravy.
After his goalwards header had been bundled in by a Bluebirds defender during the first half to level the scores, a moment of class showed everybody why Southampton had made him their record signing. Following a bit of head tennis in the box, Jordan Rhodes nodded the ball down to Ramírez, who cushioned it down with his left foot.
With Fabio flying in to make the block, the easy thing to do would have been for Ramírez to hammer the ball at the goal and hope it didn’t end up in the stand.
However, Gastón was better than that. He simply caressed the ball into the top corner. A comforting little tap as if to say to the fans “things are going to be okay now, lads”. He added to his stellar performance by breaking away in the final minutes to initiate a move that ended up with David Nugent scoring from close range.
Welcome to the Gastón Ramírez Show.
In a season that ended up being decided by goal difference, it’s easy to think about this moment being vital or that goal being the most important but one thing is for certain; if Gastón Ramírez had stayed on the South Coast then Middlesbrough would have stayed in the Championship. It wouldn’t have even been close. We’d have been welcoming a Brighton side already promoted with games to spare on the final day not preparing ourselvesfor a winner takes all showdown.
Ramírez didn’t just account for 7 goals and 4 assists in the final 18 games of that season, his performances against Cardiff, Wolves, Huddersfield and Birmingham in which he either scored, set up or started the attack for every single goal makes up 10 points. Without those 10 points Boro would have been in the play-off lottery and who knows whether a dressing room that almost imploded following the Charlton debacle and had already suffered heartbreak at Wembley could have coped with that.
However, everything seemed possible when Gastón Ramírez was on the pitch. There was free kicks, twists and turns and headers. For someone so graceful on the ball, Gastón scored a fair few headers during his time on Teesside. It was his glancing effort at QPR that led to the Leadbitter shush after all.
Comparisons to the impact Paul Merson had on the 97/98 side were rolled out weekly and after those unforgettable nights against Hull and Reading steadied the ship, Ramírez and what felt like the power of the entire town had dragged the team into a final day shootout with Brighton, promotion or bust style.
While Stuani kicking the corner flag in celebration and Dimi catching the ball out of the sky as the Boro fans streamed onto the pitch as seven years in the wilderness were ended with one blow of the ref’s whistle will forever be immortalised, it was Gastón Ramírez who had arguably the biggest impact on the game.
It was his superb free kick that had led to Stuani’s goal, it was his trickery that had kept Brighton on the back foot and that had also eventually led to Dale Stephens being sent off as the midfielder went through Boro’s star man. Put a big hole in his leg but apparently we cheated according to Brighton fans. Work that one out.
As red smoke filled the air, supporters cried and danced with joy and our heroes were lifted in the air to the chorus of “in 86 we nearly died”, the rise of Gastón Ramírez was complete. With an agreement to sign with Club Atlético Peñarol in his home country already in place for the summer, it seemed like the Uruguayan was going to achieve a rare thing. He was going to leave a football team with the adoration of it’s supporters still firmly intact, the good times preserved in club folklore forevermore.
However, through some Neil Bausor magic, Gastón Ramirez remained on Teesside. The story wasn’t over. In fact, it felt like it was just beginning. Boro had every intention of not just surviving but thriving in the Premier League and the attacking midfielder had proven integral to the side.
With the addition of an undoubted goal threat in Alvaro Negredo and exciting youngsters like Adama Traore and Viktor Fischer to go alongside the promotion heroes, Ramírez was set up to help reestablish the Reds in the top flight.
It wasn’t going too badly either. Despite concerns over whether he could replicate his form in the Premier League, Boro’s number 21 had still been able to sprinkle magic around, forming a particularly good connection with Negredo. He’d set up the Spaniard to score the club’s first goal back in the big time on the opening day at Stoke and was about to get the Gastón Ramírez Show back underway.
After the Red Faction had unfurled a giant coat of arms banner and red flags flowed across the South Stand to celebrate the 140 year anniversary of the founding of MFC, it was time to mark the occasion on the pitch.
Blocking an Adam Smith shot, Gastón set off on 70 yard run that saw him knock it past Harry Arter on the halfway line before sending Andrew Surman to the shops and slotting it past Artur Boruc to score, all with multiple Bournemouth men trying to chase after him. He really was different gravy.
He’d then combine with Negredo and Adama Traore to terrorise the reigning champions Leicester City at the King Power. Yeah, it was a Leicester City side that had performed a miracle to win the league but they were still the champions and playing in Europe.
As the away end serenaded their man with the Earth, Wind & Fire classic “September”, the Red Army started to believe that they belonged here and important results followed in must-win games against Hull and Swansea.
While there was clear teething problems with the step up in competition and some summer signings struggled to acclimatise to the English game, a Ramirez header against fellow new boys Hull had Boro in 13th and four points above the drop zone. The future looked promising for the boys in red.
Then the DMs were leaked. Ramirez, with a wife and daughter at home, had been trying to “get involved with the local community” let’s say. A lot of footballers are arseholes and if that had been the worst thing to happen that season, not many on Teesside would have batted an eyelid. I’m sure a few fellas would’ve sorted him out with their partners if he’d scored another goal like the Bournemouth one.
However, Gastón’s form had attracted the attention of the champions and he was demanding to be allowed to leave despite only just signing a three year contract that summer. While much can rightly be made of his contribution to the club, this hadn’t been a two way street.
The Boro had shown huge faith in him and had given the Uruguyan the platform to resurrect his faltering career in England. As the club refused to budge on their valuation of the player, the descent began.
Ramirez would miss four crucial matches following a 0-0 draw with his would-be suitors and returned to the fold at the end of the transfer window almost unrecognisable from the man that Middlesbrough had fallen in love with. His creative spark had been replaced by a couldn’t care less attitude and his prowess by petulance.
The final act in the playmaker’s fall from grace would be damning. Entrenched in a survival battle and with Steve Agnew now in charge, the Reds were in need of their hero. Already 2-0 down and having been booked for diving, the final episode of the Gastón Ramírez Show was about to begin but this time there was no magic. No great goal or performance. No, quite simply, Gastón got himself sent off.
Not just by mistake, he clearly didn’t want to be on the pitch in a Boro shirt anymore. He committed the cardinal sin and put himself before the team. He would get his wish as he never played a competitive game again and was hounded out of the club.
It was fitting really because for someone who had been so instrumental in the glory of the past 12 months, he had made it all about himself again.
Maybe that’s why it stings so much and it always will. Underneath all of the snake emojis and bitterness, there’s the good times. He was such a big part of such a happy time that it is impossible to escape. There’s reminders everywhere of what used to be whether it’s in highlights of those unforgettable matches that led to promotion or the lack of creativity in the side since he left.
It’s like splitting up with someone that that you travelled the world with. There’s no way of erasing them from your life.
Looking back at those old highlights and researching Ramírez for this, I realised that it is his birthday tomorrow. While I hope you have a terrible day Gastón, I’m not afraid to say I miss you every now and then.
You’ll never be forgiven but you’ll never be forgotten, either.
Photo Credits: Teesside Live, Getty Images, Daily Echo, The Guardian
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