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Middlesbrough’s European Fairy-tale Part Two: A Small Town in Europe

For part one click Here!

After the grandstand finish the season before, Boro fans had been filled with a quiet sense of optimism. Injuries had blown a chance at the champions league but to qualify for the UEFA Cup whilst achieving their highest league position since the conception of the Premier League was a huge achievement.

In the Transfer market, Middlesbrough would once again practise restraint, signing 4 players in Premier League hero Yakubu, Austrian hardman Emmanuel Pogatetz, the exciting Fabio Rochemback who played for the Sporting team that had knocked them out of Europe the year prior, and finally Abel Xavier a controversial figure who had just been released by Roma.

Boro’s only significant loss in the Summer transfer window would be Micheal Reizeger as he would join PSV. The ageing star had put in some key performances last season, however in retrospect this decision would prove to be wise. Reizeger would struggle with injuries that would ultimately prevent him from making a significant impact at PSV, only making 24 appearances in two seasons before retiring.

After what felt like an eternity for excited Middlesbrough fans, the UEFA cup would rear its prestigious head. After a routine victory over Xanthi to qualify,  Boro had been given a kind group stage draw. The only team to fear was a young Louis Van Gaal’s AZ Alkmaar. 

Sure enough, the group would prove comfortable for the North-East side, Boro only falling to lose once; a 0-0 draw with the aforementioned AZ Alkmaar.

Languishing in the Premier League

Despite a stellar performance in Europe, Middlesbrough’s league form would be worryingly inconsistent. They would beat Arsenal 2-1 only to draw to Wigan the next week. This would be personified by a spellbinding home win over Man United, 4-1. Yet the following week an entirely different team would show up as they’d labour to a 1-0 defeat at Everton.

The problems came through the thin squad Middlesbrough were relying on, with Europe and the domestic cups, the huge amount of game time would take its toll. By the end of the season Middlesbrough will have played 64 games across competitions, a record for an English side.

If Boro’s league form had taught us anything, it was that they had a glutton for big games, a side that revelled in being the underdog. They lived for the upsets, only losing in 3 out of 8 games against the big 4 teams. One of those defeats would be a disastrous 7-0 loss to an Arsenal side with a prolific Thierry Henry.

Just a month after that humiliating loss, Middlesbrough would find themselves against German giants Stuttgart. This was a team used to Europe with fans expecting big things, no doubt Middlesbrough being seen as a plucky but easier tie. 

In keeping with their underdog  story they would put on a masterclass of an away performance, where just 1,600 Teesside fans would witness a famous 2-1 victory.

It would take fine performances from last season’s hero Mark Schwarzer in goal and a vintage George Boateng display to help them across the first leg, goals coming from Hasselbaink and Stuart Parnaby of all people.

In the reverse fixture, a tense 1-0 loss at home would be enough to see Boro through on away goals, where they would face perhaps their biggest European test yet.

Boro’s Biggest European Night Yet

AS Roma. A team with a feared squad consisting of the likes of Phillipe Mexes and Christian Chivu at the heart of defence, Daniele De Rossi plus winger Mancini and of course, a prime Francesco Totti alongside wonderkid Antonio Cassano up front. A team that would finish the season in 2nd Serie A that season, helped by the outcome of the Calciopoli scandal, this was a huge test. Most pundits and fans considering this the end of the road, much like last year’s defeat in Lisbon.

As the day of the first leg dawned, the town of Middlesbrough was awash with an array of emotions. Extreme optimism, pessimism, excitement, fear and hope all mingling in the North Yorkshire air.

The Italians had come to town. Totti was luckily injured, the world class striker being forced off after 12 minutes in the league against Empoli. He would remain out until the final day of the season.

Roma’s loss was very much Middlesbrough’s gain, Roma missing a key figure within their squad, the talisman they so dearly relied on. It’s likely that few of the Italians had experienced a cold, damp night on Teesside before. As kick off neared the collective heart of every Boro fan around the ground began to flutter. Some in excitement and others in unwavering pessimism. The game was predicted to be a cagey affair. Yet the opening 15 minutes would be anything but.

An Explosive Start

McClaren would start with a 4-4-2, 2 holding midfielders in Boateng and 17 year old Lee Cattermole in the centre and Stewart Downing and Gaizka Mendieta on the wings. A classic 4-2-3-1 would be the shape of choice for Roma.

Hot breath visible around the stadium, the whistle blew as an almighty roar of encouragement and anticipation reverberated around the stands. The cagey prediction was swiftly shattered, the game bursting into a frenetic high tempo start. Cattermole and Mendieta would press heavily, attempting to stamp their presence on the game.

After just 6 minutes however, Roma were in. A delightful lobbed through ball from the 2015 Puskas Nominee Phillipe Mexes, would find the path of Peratta. Touching it down at a canter,  behind the defence and just Schwarzer to beat, a sharp inhale could be heard by the collective 30,000 Boro faithful.

Calmly slotting the ball past the onrushing Schwarzer, an almighty shout from the crowd would envelop the stadium, as Gareth Southgate perfectly reading the striker was there dropping behind Schwazer to put the ball behind for a corner. A moment of brilliance from Mexes that would perhaps wake up the Boro backline.

An opening goal would not be far away.

Penalty at The Riverside!

Following a long spell of Roma possession, a gallivanting Mexes would give the ball away allowing Boro to recoup and regain control of the match. A quick pass wide to academy graduate Andrew Davies allowed Davies to slip Mendieta past his man down the line, the former Barcelona midfielder driving through the Roma team before skipping past a challenge and playing Hasselbaink in.

It was a pacey through ball, both Hasselbaink and the keeper committed to it. The Boro striker knowing if he can just get a touch, he’ll be able to make something of it. Busting a gut to get a foot to the ball first, the Dutch striker gets a toe to it, pushing it around the sliding 20 year old Curci in net. The keeper would arrive too late, Hasselbaink crumpling over the Italian.

There was no contention. It was a penalty. The comparatively tiny North-Eastern town had a chance to lead the mighty Roma. Yakubu would be the man to take it, Mclaren barely able to watch. Yakubu seemed calm, and if there was any doubt his penalty would entirely personify this demeanour. 

With no doubt in his mind, Yakubu so cradled the ball left, sending the keeper the wrong way and putting Boro 1-0 up. The fans erupted. To many this was the moment where the European dream felt possible. Yet, there was still much to do. Cool heads were needed with not even 10% of the tie played. It’s safe to say nobody on the pitch was getting carried away.

From here, the game would stutter into a combative midfield battle, chances few and far between. Perfect for conditions for Cattermole and Middlesbrough, as the 17 year old would grow into the game gloriously.  

Just a Small Town in Europe

As half time drew near, there was little to suggest another goal was on the cards, the game very much lacking quality in the final third with that incisive pass never being found. With little more than snapped at half chances and spurned passes, Middlesbrough had defended valiantly.

As the Roma players left the pitch, it was clear to see in their body language that they were not enjoying the night. A combination of the weather, worn pitch and Middlesbrough’s stalwart defending had rattled this Roma team.

From here on, the match would continue along the same state of affair, chances occasionally being spurned by both sides, Schwarzer being forced into multiple saves but little in the way of clear cut chances being made by either team. As the 1st leg ended with the much anticipated whistle, the over 30,000 Boro faithful celebrated in ecstasy.

A chant of  ‘We’re just a small town in Europe’ would ring around the ground. The tie was by no means done, but to record a victory against one of Europe’s best made so much more seem possible.

Can Boro do it in Rome?

The entire town was lifted. Spirits high among the residents of Middlesbrough. The morale of the town was dependent on the performance of the club, when it succeeded the town succeeded, and bar the league cup trophy, this win had been the height of Boro’s success. It’s safe to say the town was on cloud nine.

If the home leg created a buzz around the town, success in Rome would make Teesside akin to Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. The second leg awaited, the European dream was alive and full of life. League performances may have marred this success, but it was clear for all to see just how much these European nights meant to everyone in Teesside.

For the thrilling, second leg stay tuned for part 3!

Written by Oscar Bowerman

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