The names of the players that represented Middlesbrough Football Club in the 2015/16 season that culminated in promotion roll off the tongue of any Boro fan.
In goal, the Greek Guardian Dimi Konstantopoulos. The history making defence of George Friend, Ben Gibson, Daniel Ayala, Emilio Nsue. The indomitable midfield axis of Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton.
The returning hometown hero Stewart Downing and the flying Albert Adomah on the flanks. The summer signings of Cristhian Stuani and veteran goalscorer David Nugent joining Kike in attack. From the bench, there was the master of the five yard pass Adam Forshaw and the Czech Prince Tomáš Kalas.
There was a laundry list of loanees from the brilliant in Gastón Ramírez to the bizarre in Kike Sola. There were cup heroics from Tomás Mejías for the second season running, in the red half of Manchester this time, as part of a makeshift team that included Bruno Zuculini and Jack Stephens. Bit-part roles for youngsters like Dael Fry, Carlos De Pena and Julien De Sart and the big money acquisition of Jordan Rhodes.
Each member of Aitor’s Handsome Reds have been immortalised, no matter their impact that year or lack thereof, thanks to the joyous scenes that accompanied the final whistle on that May afternoon against Brighton as promotion was clinched and celebrations began.
Yet, there is someone from that squad who probably doesn’t get the credit they deserve because they weren’t held aloft by supporters, above the red sea that engulfed the Riverside pitch following the end of that game. Their name wasn’t sang out across the stands and they didn’t pick up a medal. They weren’t even at the club by the time the game had rolled around but they had set helped to set in motion a season that will never, ever die in the memories of Middlesbrough fans.
That person, who strolled into Rockliffe Hall in the summer of 2015 wearing dog shoes that covered magic feet, is Diego Fabbrini.
That summer, Aitor Karanka hit the transfer market hard, in an attempt to rectify the heartache caused in the previous season’s collapse at Wembley and revive hope on Teesside for an automatic promotion push.
In total that summer Alex Baptiste, Stewart Downing, Nugent, Stuani and De Pena arrived for a combined fee of £16.1 million (according to transfermarkt) and were joined by the loan signings of Fabbrini, Tomáš Kalas and Jack Stephens from Premier League clubs as well as Michael Agazzi and Fernando Amorebieta who were on Premier League level wages at AC Milan and Fulham respectively.
Although Downing arrived having played the majority of his football in the prior season at West Ham as a central attacking midfielder, putting on performances that saw him named the Hammers’ Player of the Year, Karanka had pencilled him in as a winger. It was Fabbrini who was to fill the spot behind the striker, that was to be shortly vacated by Lee Tomlin, having been deemed surplus to requirements at recently promoted Watford.
Now, the central attacking midfield/number 10 role is the most fascinating position in football because the very nature of it breeds characters and it screams showbiz. It’s Hollywood on a football pitch, mavericks and maestros, tricks and flicks.
It’s art and arrogance, meshing together in moments of inspiration and inconsistency, which creates these intriguing characters. You can’t be humble if you’re a proper number 10 because you’ve probably the main man since you first kicked a ball and that brings a certain responsibility. You’ve got to show everyone who the man is, whether that be in your performances or your characteristics.
In the same way art college students are a bit wanky, wear crazy clothes and dye their hair mad colours, proper number 10s have their own thing that marks them out from the crowd. Think Baggio’s ponytail or Cantona’s popped collar. Number 10s are also unpredictable, the fiery nature that comes with always wanting to be the centre of attention clashing with the difficulty of constantly attempting the impossible.
It was these qualities that Aitor Karanka hoped Diego Fabbrini was going to bring to the party and for a while, he did.
From the start of his time on Teesside, Fabbrini showed that he had a little bit of everything that makes a great attacking midfielder. He certainly looked like one with the curly hair, the slightly rolled up sleeves of his undershirt and black adidas boots. It was all very Italian. In a world where everyone was wearing brightly coloured boots, Diego stole the spotlight by going back to basics and if his first outing in a preseason friendly against Barnsley was anything to go by; he was certainly fiery.
Getting a yellow card takes some going in a friendly but Fabbrini was lucky not to be sent off as he continuously tussled and battled with the Tykes Ben Pearson. So the shithouse connoiseurs amongst us were certainly in for a treat.
He had the look. He had the fire. Now, it was time for Diego to show the Red Army that he could play as well.
Starting in the League Cup against Oldham, a strong Boro outfit put the Latics to the sword, with Fabbrini sitting behind Cristhian Stuani as both summer signings made their full debuts.
Fabbrini won a penalty early on after rounding David Cornell, the keeper bringing Fabbrini down in the eighth minute. Cornell went from zero to hero though by saving the spotkick which was taken by Adam Clayton. Why Adam Clayton was taking a penalty I’ll never understand.
Fabbrini would then set up Stuani for his first Boro goal just before halftime, jinking between defenders and pulling back a cross for the Uruguyan to head home.
If that had been the dress rehearsal in the attacking midfielders performance, Diego was about to make his virtuoso performance. In the opening home game of the league season, Fabbrini would wow the Riverside crowd with a one-man show that saw the loanee have a hand in all three goals in an exhilarating 3-0 defeat of Bolton Wanderers.
Rolling a defender 45 yards out from goal, Fabbrini’s black boots knocked the ball into space and taking a touch to set himself, unleashed a shot that flew straight into the top corner of the South Stand goal. Postage stamp behaviour.
Boro fans could be excused for thinking there had been a glitch in the matrix ten minutes later as he again rolled a Bolton player 45 yards out from goal and knocked the ball into space. However, rather than shooting this time, the curly haired artiste slipped in Kike to open his account for the season.
A deflected shot from the Italian’s little black boots shortly after that keeper Ben Amos could only palm onto the bar would let Kike tap in his second of the afternoon. He was a ball of energy that complimented the showmanship and terrific touches with a grit and work rate that meant he was nailed on to become a fans’ favourite. Diego was even afforded the highest terrace honour by being included in the original La Bamba. He wasn’t even Spanish!
Teesside was buzzing. Dubbed “Maradona” by teammate Albert Adomah, the hopes and dreams of the team were immediately put on the boots of Diego Fabbrini and his form continued in the early stages of the season.
There was a goal on the counterattack against Sheffield Wednesday to put Boro ahead at Hillsborough and an assist for Stuani’s opener against Brentford two weeks later.
The demolition of the Leeds scum in the September sun was rounded off by Sol Bamba going full Bambi and tripping over which allowed Fabbrini in to knock it round the keeper and fire into the roof of the net. Oh, how we laughed.
Fabbrini would also play his part in an iconic moment of the season. Grant Leadbitter’s Gollum-like roar, veins thumping in his head, after putting the team in front from the penalty spot is one of many timeless images of the skipper and from that campaign. The match against Wolves came after a miniature derailment of the promotion bandwagon, Boro on a run of three games without a win or goal and they had trailed at Molineux before Leadbitter’s head almost burst with passion.
As the captain ran towards the fans, housed in the worst away end in the country for generating an atmosphere, the scrawny frame of Fabbrini clings onto his shoulders. He wasn’t just a opportunistic photobomber though. Fabbrini had already scored the equaliser with a low drive form outside the area in a comeback victory, capped by a Stewart Downing free kick, that would prove to be vital come the end of the season.
It was those three games without a win that preceded the win at Molineux and a tonking from Hull shortly afterwards that would ultimately end Fabbrini’s brief spell on Teesside. With Karanka battening down the hatches, the unpredictability of Fabbrini was seen as a hindrance, with minutes restricted as the team became more rigid and disciplined.
Despite the handful of assists and goals he’d notched and his endless harrying of defences, he wasn’t quite good enough to be the affordable luxury in the workmanlike engine that was powering towards promotion.. What we’d learn soon was that he wasn’t quite Gastón Ramírez.
The Uruguyan’s arrival was facilitated by cutting Fabbrini’s loan move short as he joined Birmingham for the second half of the season. He failed to live up to the form he’d shown at Boro and a frustrating time at St. Andrews, punctuated by loan moves to Spezia and Real Oviedo, ended in 2018.
The Italian now finds himself in Romania at Dinamo București where he counts Boro goalie Tomás Mejías as a teammate. I imagine they often reminisce about that season, as we all do, humming along to La Bamba.
Photo Credits: Middlesbrough Football Club, Teesside Live, The Northern Echo