When Boro Captivated Europe

Middlesbrough Football Club made their top-flight return this season, after seven years in the Championship, and ambition was high. They hadn’t had to spend lavishly to bounce straight back up, they had employed a tactically astute manager in Aitor Karanka, a man who was close friends with Jose Mourinho, and a chairman who understood the balance between treating the club as a business and a football club. Yet they failed, they failed badly. Their players tried, they were a solid defensive outlet, but they simply didn’t score enough goals. They weren’t exciting, the fans became unhappy. The good news, Middlesbrough fans, is that I am not here to talk about your teams unmemorable stint in this Premier League season. No, instead, I am going to run through a happier time in your teams history. The UEFA cup run, 2005/06.

Middlesbrough finished the 2004/05 season in 7th place (see, a happy memory already, Boro fans!) and were awarded a place in the next seasons UEFA Cup. They had a qualifying round against Skoda Xanthi, of Greece. The expectations for a team like Middlesbrough weren’t too high, they would have been hoping to make it to the group stages, but anything beyond that would be a bonus. George Boateng and Mark Viduka scored the only goals of the tie at the Riverside in the first leg, and a professional job out in Greece saw them gain a 0-0, progressing them to the group stages.

The group stages of the UEFA Cup, for our younger readers, is a little different to the Europa League group stages today. 40 teams played in the group stages. The teams were drawn into 10 groups consisting of five teams. Instead of playing each team home and away, each team would play every other team in their group once, playing two teams at home and two away. The top three teams would progress to the next round.

Boro were drawn in Group D, along with AZ Alkmaar, Switzerland’s Grasshoppers, Litex Lovech, of Bulgaria, and Ukrainian side Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. Middlesbrough won both home games with ease, 3-0 against Dnipro and 2-0 against Litex Lovech. Away from the Riverside, Boro beat Grasshoppers 1-0 on match day one, courtesy of a Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink goal early on. The only group game that they failed to win was their away trip to The Netherlands, but with AZ Alkmaar being an established European team, a 0-0 there could be considered an excellent point.

Middlesbrough finished top of Group D, having scored six goals, keeping four clean sheets, and earning a place in the Round of32. Their opponents, Stuttgart. The first leg was played in Germany, and Middlesbrough came away with a 2-1 victory. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink opened the scoring 20 minutes into the first half, knocking the ball through Timo Hildebrand’s legs to gift Boro an advantage. Right back Stuart Parnaby’s lung-busting run saw him free in the middle of the Stuttgart box to hammer home the second goal of the game. Two goals, and crucially, two away goals. Goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer conceded his first goal of the tournament four minutes from full time, getting caught out by a low free kick which gifted the Germans a lifeline. Stuttgart beat Middlesbrough 1-0 in the second leg to give Steve McClaren’s men a scare, but they held on, put bodies on the line and ground out the result, which saw them qualify via the away goals rule.

If they thought Stuttgart was tricky, their next game was an even bigger step up. AS Roma. With Bolton Wanders being eliminated in the previous round, they were now the only British team left in the competition. The eyes of a nation were now firmly on a team who were defying expectation.

On a wet Thursday night in Middlesbrough, the Italian giants took to the field to show the Premier League outfit a thing or two about football. That may have been the plan, but plans have a funny way of going out the window in cup competition. When Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was tripped by Roma goalkeeper Curci, the referee had no hesitations in pointing to the spot. Yakubu stepped up gentled tapped the penalty into the bottom left corner. The penalty was almost comically under hit for a striker as powerful and imposing as “The Yak”, but it certainly did the job. A further 80 minutes of Roma pressure ensued, with Gareth Southgate and Chris Riggott the standout men for Boro, mopping up everything the Romans could muster at them, forming their own Hadrians Wall to keep the Roma offence at bay. The game finished 1-0 and put Boro in a strong position for the second leg. The lads from Middlesbrough played the part of gladiators against Roma that evening.

The second leg was a tougher affair. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink once again helped his side out, scoring a bullet header early on to put Middlesbrough two up on aggregate. But at the Stadio Olimpico, Roma were a more threatening prospect. They surmounted a comeback of sorts, scoring two goals courtesy of Brazilian forward Mancini. Middlesbrough were not there merely to make up the numbers though, and fought passionately throughout, getting caught up in the aggression of a feisty encounter. Mancini threw what was perceived to be a deliberate elbow, a scrap broke out on the pitch between senior players George Boateng and Philippe Mexes, and bad tackles were plentiful throughout. Nevertheless, Boro held on, frustrating Roma, and late on, Mexes lunged out, putting in a vicious tackle on a young Stewart Downing. The referee had no choice but to show red to the French defender, easing the pressure on Middlesbrough significantly. Eventually the full-time whistle blew, and again, the away goal rule saw the plucky team from the North-East progress.

The next team out the hat for the Boro were Basel, of Switzerland. Not the most daunting of names, yet it turned out to be quite the battle. Middlesbrough travelled to the St. Jakob-Park full of confidence, and rightly so. For the opening half hour they played well, and yet despite all this, they were sucker punched minutes before the half time whistle. A long shot from Matias Delgado took an awkward deflection and bounced over the already committed Mark Schwarzer in goal. If that was a sucker punch on 43 minutes, the next goal, seconds before the halftime whistle, was surely a knockout punch. David Degan outpaced a disenchanted Boro back line to bag Basel a 2-0 lead going into the half. The game finished 2-0, despite close efforts from Hasselbaink, Riggott and Ehiogu, but no breakthrough could be made. A herculean effort would be needed at home in the second leg to give Middlesbrough any chance of progression.

23 minutes into the second leg and it was over, Eduardo latched on to the end of a loose free kick and slammed the ball past the helpless Schwarzer to put the game to bed. 3-0 on aggregate, with the cushion of an away goal. Middlesbrough would need to score four. This was just a case of seeing the game out for the Swiss side. Or at least, that’s what should have happened…

Middlesbrough were no pushovers. On 33 minutes, Australian striker Mark Viduka unleashed a shot so powerful it would have taken the head off anybody who got in its way. The ball fired into the net and the crowd were on their feet. The game may be lost, but at least they got a goal. Just before the hour mark, Mark lost his marker, latching onto a pinpoint through-ball from Boateng, delicately rounding the Basel keeper and making it 2-1 to Boro on the night. The belief came back, the confidence returned. Two goals in half an hour, with the crowd behind them; maybe, just maybe, it was possible. With 10 minutes until the final whistle, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, evidently unhappy at not being involved in a goal during this tie, picked up the ball 25 yards from goal and struck it hard, over the defenders, past the keeper, and into the net. The crowd erupted! Basel were capitulating. Caught between not knowing whether to push forward or sit back, they were being picked apart.

Finally, well into the 90th minute, the ball was being played just outside the Basel box. Brazilian midfielder Fabio Rochemback struck a lethal shot towards goal. Basel’s keeper stopped the shot, doing well to push it wide, instead of in front of himself. To his horror, the Italian super-sub striker Massimo Maccarone was the first player to pounce, reaching the ball and hitting it hard and low. The keeper got a hand to it, but it awkwardly bounced off him and into the net.

The crowd was in bedlam, Maccarone ripped his shirt off, swinging it around his arm, sprinting up the touchline to his manager and the bench. The commentator, Ali Brownlee, was almost inaudible such was his excitement. All he was able to scream was the word “magnificent!” over and over again. This game was meant to be over, but the players persevered, and got their just rewards. This was arguably the greatest night in the history of Middlesbrough Football Club. It was a comeback that rivalled even Barcelona’s against PSG in this season’s Champions League, names because Boro didn’t have Messi, Neymar and Suarez in their ranks!

This was not the last time in this competition that the English team would have to overhaul a four-goal deficit, as they would soon find out against their semi-final opponents, Steaua Bucharest. A tricky away fixture saw Boro defeated 1-0 in Romania. Not a disastrous result, but with a shaky defence and no away goal, the second leg would certainly be an uphill battle.

The Riverside played host to the second leg, and was rocking pre-kick off. This did not last long, however, as Bucharest scored to go 2 up on aggregate just 15 minutes in. Their lead doubled on the night 25 minutes in, with future Rangers player Doran Goian scoring their second of the evening off the back of some shocking Middlesbrough defending from a corner. Ordinarily, this would be down and out for Middlesbrough, but their coach, their players and their fans knew that they’d defeated the odds in similar fashion in the previous round. It would undoubtedly be tough, but impossible, they didn’t know the meaning of the word!

Their saviour from the previous round, Massimo Maccarone, scored Boros first of the evening, finding acres of space on the right side of the Bucharest penalty box to hammer home his goal little after the half-hour mark. 65 minutes on the clock and Mark Viduka leapt high above the defence and the overzealous goalkeeper to tower his header into the back of the net. 2-2 on the night, a goal behind on aggregate though. With away goals coming into play, the Boro boys needed another two goals.

Step up, Chris Riggott. A long throw wasn’t cleared effectively by the Romanians, the ball bounced between a couple of defenders, headers were missed, then Stewart Downing saw the ball land at his feet at the edge of the box. He looked up, calmly saw the attackers moving towards goal, and glided the ball low along the ground to the outstretched legs of centre back Chris Riggott. Riggott threw his body at the ball to turn it into the net. 3-3. Something magical was happening. The fans roared the team on. The players knew they could dig deep and find one more goal.

Lax defending again from Steaua Bucharest saw the football picked up by Boro on the wing. The ball went into the box and Massimo Maccarone leapt high in the air, threw himself at the ball and fizzed his header into the back of the end, sending Middlesbrough into the UEFA Cup final. The small team from the North-East had done the impossible, twice in the same season! Massimo Maccarone was not the best striker Middlesbrough have ever had, but after those two games at the Riverside, he will certainly never be forgotten.

Middlesbrough had been living something of a dream for the past few months. While they had been below par in the league, they still survived with relative ease, and this Euro campaign will go down in football history, a spectacular effort for a team punching far above their weight. It was a shame, after such a fine few months, that the journey ended in such a disappointing manner against Seville.

Half an hour in and a young Dani Alves launched a pinpoint cross deep into the Middlesbrough box, onto the head of Luis Fabiano, who nodded the ball past Mark Schwarzer and into the net. Middlesbrough struggled to find a way into the game, but were doing well to stay in it at only a goal down, a wayward Maccarone cross nearly finding the back of the net being one of Middlesbrough’s best chances of the game. With 12 minutes to go, a Seville break saw Boro short at the back. Pass after pass cut them open, then a quick shot caught Schwarzer off guard. He spilt the ball in front of him for Maresca to easily tap in. A cruel end to a wonderful campaign for the Australian goalkeeper.

A comfortable 2-0 defeat was justified, but the onslaught that continued from there was simply a Seville team who wanted to make sure no repeat of Middlesbrough’s previous heroics occurred. Maresca struck again five minutes later, with a half-volley from the edge of the box. Any doubt, any hope, was truly gone now. It was a defeat at the final hurdle. Another spilt cross from Schwarzer was netted by Seville, this time it was former Spurs forward Fredi Kanoute who stabbed the ball home, sealing a 4-0 victory for the Spanish.

The final score was harsh on Middlesbrough, four goals was hard to take, but the defeat was justified. Seville were simply better in every department. The warning signs were there for Boro. A comeback story is always good value, but to have to score four goals to progress twice in a tournament shows a weak defence. Seville capitalised on this, and had enough quality to see out the Middlesbrough attack.

Middlesbrough may not have won the UEFA Cup in 2005/06, but they certainly left their mark. Not conceding a goal in the groups, beating Stuttgart and Roma, in the knockouts, and of course, those epic comebacks at the Riverside against Basel and Bucharest. Long before Leicester City won the Premier League, another small side in the English top flight were part of a fairytale story. While the story did not end happily ever after for Boro, it will certainly be a story told to generation after generation of Middlesbrough fans forever. To any Middlesbrough fan reading through this, I am sorry your team were relegated this year, but I do hope that by reading this article, you can appreciate that your club made a little bit of history in the spring of 2006, and that is something to be immensely proud of.