Friday, 27 April 2012

Back In Time: Middlesbrough 4, Steaua Bucharest 2, 2005/06

As the exciting conclusion to our season approaches, Si's Insights looks back at the last time we gave ourselves hope of a great end to the season - on the anniversary of the occasion too...

Happy Anniversary, Everyone!

Has it really been exactly six years since we defied the odds for the second consecutive European home game, and gave our little town its most exciting European football night ever?

The win over Banik Ostrava was a delight, a convincing victory in our first ever match in Europe. The Lazio triumph was a truly exemplary performance, featuring a full house and Bolo Zenden's only Boro brace. But as far as drama and value for money goes, neither could match the Great Comebacks of our second European campaign - and for good reason.

I certainly didn't see the Basle (or is it Basel?) performance coming. Our league form that season was what you'd call schizophrenic - for every home hammering by Villa and Charlton, there was a home hammering of Manchester United and Chelsea - and we'd already lost 2-0 in the away leg. With that in mind, it seemed to matter little that I had chosen to support my local musical society's production of "Guys And Dolls" on the same night our second leg was due to be played.

I more than expected to be disappointed when I returned home and keyed in page 302 on the soon to be defunct Ceefax (the times are changing, and fast), instead, I was greeted by the headline:


I was both elated and annoyed at the same time. Elated in that we'd defied the odds in such an unexpected manner. Annoyed in that (a) I'd missed such a dramatic comeback, (b) once again, we'd shown our inconsistency. Even more annoyingly, I later found that only (well, that's how we saw it back then) 24,521 turned up to see it!

But suddenly, being seemingly the only Middlesbrough fan in the North West of Ireland didn't seem so bad after all. Words like “Unbelievable” and “It’s amazing what wee Middlesbrough can do what they want” were heard from my colleagues within the coming days. 

Why did I have to miss it? Luckily, I'd get another chance...

Three weeks later, and Boro’s topsy-turvy season had gone from good to bad to possibly worse. We had swarmed over West Ham United in the first half of the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park. Then Dean Ashton intervened and ruined everything, his aerial challenge putting Mark Schwarzer out of action for almost the rest of the season. Brad Jones stepped into goal, Boro hearts sank, and before you knew it, West Ham were in the ascendancy. Slightly unfair though it seemed, Marlon Harewood’s winner (set up by, you guessed it, Ashton) had a tinge of inevitability about it.

Our season looked over. We would now have to win the UEFA Cup to guarantee European football for 2006/07. And how likely was it that we’d recover from such a deflation, even though 1-0 seemed an undoubtedly easier deficit to turn over in the semi-final second leg, against Steaua Bucharest?

The fans certainly believed it was possible, though, as evidenced by the capacity Riverside crowd that night. This time, I was at home, and switched on the computer to listen to Century Radio, eagerly anticipating another comeback. One that I hoped would be less nail-biting.

Twenty-six minutes in, and I had switched my computer off. Two almost typical Brad Jones fumbles had resulted in two Steaua goals, and our Captain (but not Manager) Fantastic Southgate had limped off. Jon Champion, commentating for ITV that night, was to say: “Comebacks like Basle only happen once in a lifetime”. And I definitely agreed with him, for a few minutes anyway.

At this moment, a realisation hit me. If this really was to be our last UEFA Cup match for the indefinite future, why not enjoy listening to what's left of it? So I lay down and switched on BBC Radio Five Live, listening calmly to what Boro would do for the remainder of the match.

Things had actually improved before the half-time break. Massimo Maccarone, on for Southgate, had pulled one back, and we had continued to pour forward before the players had to go in at the interval.

I didn't know this at the time, but the continuous mounting Boro pressure had forced Jon Champion to tempt fate: "It couldn't happen again, could it?"

Or could it? When Viduka met Downing's cross, I allowed myself to punch the air, but remained pretty relaxed. We still needed two more, and, unlike Basle, Steaua wouldn't be playing the last twenty minutes with ten men.

Then, it happened. Stewie's cross caused pandemonium in the Steaua box... and Chris Riggott atoned handsomely for his awful miss in the FA Cup semi. Suddenly, I was up on my feet. Yes, it was possible.

It’s incredible, really, how clearly I can remember my reactions during the final moments of this game. With a few minutes left, Chris Waddle had declared how "tired" the Boro lads looked, and at that stage I really was tempted to think that our chance had gone. But Steaua were tired too, not to mention nervous, and when Stewie capitalised on very uncertain defending to fire in that cross for Maccarone...

I must have jumped around constantly for... I don't know, more than a minute! And there was still the agony of Ugo Ehiogu's handball to listen through.

I had just four words for a workmate the following day: “Well… we did it.”

In the end, as you know, we didn’t do it. We got hammered in Eindhoven, and later it was revealed we made a massive loss on our UEFA Cup campaign. It was yet another lesson in what living The Dream can do to you. Sometimes I think it was as if Steve McClaren knew about this loss and, like Harry Redknapp at Pompey, decided to abandon a sinking ship the moment he was presented with the chance.

And today, even after Mogga's management and the club's more sensible economic measures have helped to steady the ship, one must wonder:

Will we ever get that kind of European adventure again?

Still, what a ride…

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