Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Something Happened On The Way To Heaven...

It was a very Untypical Boro day, in what was a very good year to be a Boro fan.

When it comes to my own memories of exactly eight years ago, I guess they begin with the final line of Peter Schmeichel’s Carling Cup Final preview in The Sunday Times on February 29, 2004. I still remember it quite vividly, not to mention the resentment I felt when reading it:

“By a height shorter than Juninho, I think the advantage lies with Bolton.”

There you have it - the press writing us off, yet again. Although at the same time, I suppose he had a good point. On our way to the Carling Cup Final, we’d twice needed penalties, once needed extra time – at home to Brighton! – and were fortunate to edge out a deliberately under strength Arsenal side. Would we have beaten them at all had Henry and Pires been playing? That, and before the semi-final we’d only scored three goals in normal time throughout the entire competition. Bolton had netted five in the second leg of their semi final alone.

But I think Schmeichel’s reasoning went beyond that – he knew as well as we did how consistently Boro had flattered to deceive over the years, always pretending to be the next big thing while never being the actual big thing. He must’ve been thinking what we were also thinking – that Boro would repeatedly tantalise their fans with the promise of success, but ultimately, they were doomed to fail.

Until 29/02/04, that is.

In fairness, you really couldn’t bank on Boro, especially not in 2003/04. The team we had back then could battle their way to an impressive victory at Old Trafford, but could also fold limply at home to Blackburn. One was almost as likely as the other, and sure enough, both happened that season.

What people tend to forget is that we had a very good team that year too – in fact, I’m happy to go out on a limb and say that, at full strength, it was the best team that Steve McClaren assembled. Yes, I can still remember my fellow countryman Alan Green laughing at the quality of our team very early on in the season, but he conveniently failed to mention that injuries, suspensions and problems with international clearances had robbed us of numerous key men.

Juninho, everyone’s favourite player (well, almost everyone’s), was playing in front of a midfield he could only have dreamed of playing in during those “halcyon days” of 1997. Gaizka Mendieta was playing his best football for us on the right of midfield, something that he would never quite replicate again following an unfortunate injury later that year. On the left you had Bolo Zenden, the finest attacking midfielder to grace the Riverside Stadium. Joining him was the best defensive midfielder of the Riverside years – all round good guy and fulcrum of the team, George Boateng. Behind him, our Captain Fantastic Gareth Southgate played alongside his favourite defensive partner, Ugo Ehiogu, while either side of them you had the eccentric but excellent Franck Queudrue and the erratic but occasionally brilliant Danny Mills. Luckily for him, this was one of his better days. Add the imposing frame of Mark Schwarzer behind them, prone to dropping the odd clanger but equally capable of redeeming himself with spectacular saves and a strong presence, and you really had a Riverside Dream Team.

Even dependable Doriva, and Joseph Job, who could be magical went he wanted to, were considerable performers. On the bench we had Massimo Maccarone, Michael Ricketts (don’t laugh – he was genuinely good in this game) and this young winger named Stewart Downing. What happened to him? And then there was Matthew Bates and James Morrison, on the fringes of becoming first teamers, while Szilard Nemeth and Jonathan Greening didn’t even make the final sixteen. These were exciting times to be a Boro fan – especially if we could get it right that day.

Reluctant though I am to admit it, kudos is due to Steve McClaren for putting such an impressive side together, though I still look back on that year, and the two years that followed it, with regret. I believe that McClaren could and should have gotten more out of that team. Our victory that day should have been the time for the media to admit that we had proved them wrong as a club. But they wouldn’t admit it. Instead, Boro’s triumph, our moment – became McClaren’s. The media published pictures of him bringing the Carling Cup home and commented on his remarkable triumph in securing our first ever trophy. And he lapped up every second, all while edging a step closer to clinching his beloved England job. Knowing the right people may have allowed him to put good squads together, but it also allowed him to gain more credit than he actually deserved, which, naturally, suited him down to the ground. What if we’d had a manager who not only knew the right people, but was also a better motivator with his heart in the club? (Ah well, one out of three ain’t bad. Just ask Gareth Southgate.)

But anyway, back to my experience of the final itself...

Would you believe, I missed the first ten minutes! Back then, I didn't have Sky where I lived, so I had to head down the road to the nearest recreation club. Hence, I heard Job's goal on the radio (I guess I didn’t expect it to arrive so soon), and arrived at the club just in time to see Zenden take his penalty. When he converted it, albeit fortuitously (yes, I know it shouldn't have stood), I celebrated calmly. There were no Boro fans in the bar, so I had to enjoy what could be my greatest moment as a Boro fan without the necessary atmosphere. It wasn't easy.

But, as we were 2-0 up, I didn't care. Then Schwarzer made his mistake, Bolton were back in the match, and suddenly I was on edge. At least Skippy wasted no time in atoning for that mistake, although I still experienced a genuine heart-in-mouth moment when Per Frandsen’s shot was tipped on to the post!

I have to admit, until the final minute – and Mike Riley’s failure to spot Ugo’s handball – there were no more notable heart-in-mouth moments, even though I couldn’t take my eyes off the match for one second. The reason for that is, for the most part, we really did do our job to perfection in a wonderful, fast-paced final. It was nice to score the fastest goal in a domestic cup final for a change, too (although sadly, John Arne Riise would smash Job’s record a year later).

Boro being Boro, however, didn’t make it easy for themselves, with Mendieta, Juninho and Ricketts all blowing chances to seal it. I still remember holding my head in my hands after watching what should have been the icing on the cake for us. Instead, I was left to count down the final ten seconds of injury time until Mike Riley blew the whistle, Juninho collapsed on the turf in joy, and I nearly collapsed myself… on to the floor of the recreation club in utter disbelief. All eight years of supporting Boro had paid off, and I couldn’t believe what had actually happened. We’d done it.

It had taken 128 years, but at long last, we were going to lift a major trophy – and we had European football to look forward to later that year. The new Boro dream was only just beginning.

February 29, 2004 was memorable not just for the trophy itself, and what it meant to the club, fans and Steve Gibson, but also for being the day we were able to finally shake the “Typical Boro” tag and forget everything that had threatened to derail our dreams over the years. At long last, we could put the “three points” fiasco and everything the likes of Emile Heskey, Steve Claridge, Pontus Kamark, Roberto Di Matteo and Pierre Van Hooijdonk had done to bed. 

And how good did it feel?

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