The discerning readers of These Football Times aside, the game doesn’t care about Teesside. The north-east of England has its glamour and its history, but it’s enough to talk of Newcastle, the Toon, Alan Shearer and Kevin Keegan, Supermac and Wor Jackie. Or if not, if there’s still a swill in the glass and music behind the bar, there is always Sunderland, Jimmy Montgomery and 1973, or maybe even Big Sam in his blazer, dancing away under the lights.

No-one pays any mind to Boro.

For what it’s worth – and don’t worry, we will soon be back on a cheerier track – neither the Palace of Westminster nor the European Union seems to care much about Teesside either. Chinese steel has been dumped in bulk onto the European market, and with that the region that built the world, that gave us Sydney Harbour Bridge and Canary Wharf and the Freedom Tower, is dying among the embers of its soon-to-be-forgotten foundries. Rescue packages and restructurings – Corus, Tata, SSI – have put off but not halted the demise. Across the industry that defined Teesside, in Redcar, Lackenby and Skinningrove, the dust of ages is starting to settle.

Because no-one much cares about Teesside, until they feel it for themselves.

If it’s said that no-one outside of Middlesbrough supports the town’s football team, then no-one who lives there would think of following anyone else. It’s a place where you belong, and a feeling that seeps through into the players. George Friend, born in Devon and with six other league clubs on his CV, is at home here. Dimi Konstantopoulos, who has played for 11 teams in a 20-year career across Greece, Portugal and England, is married to a woman from Hartlepool. And it was Grant Leadbitter, a Wearsider by birth, who led the singing on the pitch after promotion to the Premier League was sealed in May. “In ’86”, he sang, “we nearly died; from Ayresome Park to the Riverside, Europe twice and we won the cup, the mighty Boro are going up …”

We’ll come to that third line in a moment. First, though, it’s important to touch on the start and to explain how 30 years before Teesside lost its industry, it almost lost its team.

 

• • • •

 

Ayresome Park hosted its first competitive game in September 1903, a derby between Middlesbrough and Sunderland played out in front of 30,000 fans. On 26 April 1986, Millwall played Boro in front of 5,484, and for all the world it looked as if that would be its last.

If it had been, it should hardly have come as a surprise. Attendances at Boro had always been up and down, but the last few years had seen consistent decline, the average crowd dipping below 10,000 in 1984 and barely reaching 5,000 the year after. Relegation to Division Two in 1982 was followed by three seasons of struggle on and off the pitch, the team sinking from 16th to 17th to 19th and the club losing £10,000 per week, while a brief spell under the management of Malcolm Allison ended shortly after the colourful Kentish man suggested in a post-match press conference that it would be better for the club to die swiftly than to linger on its deathbed.

Allison’s comments may not have been popular, but the facts that had prompted them were hard to ignore. In October 1985, just 2,177 – a club record low for a domestic cup match – saw Boro beat Carlisle 2-0 in the short-lived and little-lamented Full Members Cup, and the apathy off the pitch was reflected in the lethargy on it, the 1985-86 season ending in relegation to the third tier for only the second time in Middlesbrough’s history.

That wasn’t all. Before the season was out the club was forced to borrow money from the PFA to pay its staff, and then chairman Alf Duffield, who had kept it afloat with half a million pounds of his own money, stepped down. The descent steepened; in May, the liquidator was called in, and the gates at Ayresome Park were padlocked. The players spent the summer training in parks, their wages paid by volunteers and the taxpayer, and watched a series of rescue bids fall through. Teesside waited for the end.

The final deadline arrived on 22 August 1986. Had no deal been agreed by the end of that day, there would have been no option but to wind up the club. By 9pm, the local news had given up, and on its nightly bulletin, Tyne-Tees Television pronounced Boro as dead.

The report was minutes away – between 10 and 37, depending on your source – from accuracy. Somehow, though, the new chairman – a local 28-year-old businessman called Steve Gibson – alongside the council and a mysterious envelope magnate named Henry Moszkowicz who brought a suitcase containing £300,000 to a meeting with Gibson at Heathrow Airport, managed to put together a deal to satisfy the Football League. Tyne-Tees’ 10pm update confirmed the reprieve, and the following day, the team marked its survival with a 2-2 draw with Port Vale at Hartlepool United’s Victoria Park.

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Ravanelli Middlesbrough

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It’s about 350 miles from Hartlepool to Eindhoven. It’s not much of a pilgrimage. It was, though, a journey that came to define Middlesbrough and Steve Gibson, and it took them the best part of 20 years. For most of that time, first Ayresome Park and then, from 1995, the Riverside Stadium played host to what Teessiders would describe as ‘typical Boro’. From the brink of the abyss, two straight promotions took them back into the top flight. Typical Boro, they went straight back down, and it took 32 goals from Bernie Slaven in 1989-90 to prevent an unwelcomely immediate return to Division Three. Typical Boro.

For a while, they ebbed and they flowed. In seven seasons between 1991 and 1998, they were either relegated from or promoted to the Premier League in five of them. Then, when the last of those promotions finally stuck, it marked the beginning of the best days the Boro have ever seen.

It was Bryan Robson’s fault, to start with. Lennie Lawrence had done a solid enough job for where Boro stood in the hierarchy – one promotion, one relegation – but luring Robson as player-manager in the summer of 1994 was a coup. From the moment – just days after helping Manchester United to their first domestic double for nearly 40 years – that he juggled a ball on the pitch at Ayresome in a memorable sartorial combination that featured shirt, tie and checked jacket on his top half and club shorts and socks bedecking his southern features, he brought an air of possibility.

And so it began – a time of Fabrizio Ravanelli and Paul Gascoigne, Christian Karembeu and Christian Ziege, Alen Bokšić and Juninho, glitz and glamour. But like anything that you become accustomed to, after a while that wasn’t quite enough. Mid-table in the league, a cup final here, a semi-final there. It’s fair to say that Boro have always punched a bit above their weight – a town of 120,000 with no catchment area to speak of shouldn’t really be able to support a top division team – but if you keep on outperforming expectations, then those expectations are going to get raised.

And so, in June 2001 via a short-lived double act with Terry Venables that still couldn’t drag the team any higher than ninth in the Premier League (never mind that they had finished higher only twice since the Second World War), Robson was ushered aside in favour of another young buck with strong Old Trafford connections – Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant, Steve McClaren.

It’s been forgotten since, through his ignominious spell with England, the collapses at Nottingham Forest, Derby and Newcastle and the infamous pre-Champions League interview he gave while managing in Holland in which about the only words to which he didn’t give a cod lowlands wobble were ‘FC’ and ‘Twente’, but McClaren was the future once.

His first couple of seasons at Middlesbrough were nothing spectacular. In fact, these days, and under different chairmen to Steve Gibson, they would be more than enough to get one sacked. But there was an FA Cup semi-final and a win in the league at Old Trafford in 2001-02, and the feel-good factor engendered by the return of Juninho helped carry him through 2002-03. Even so, by his third year in charge, the feeling was growing around Teesside that he needed to make something happen, and pretty sharpish.

 

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To explain the significance of 2003-04, it must be emphasised, and reiterated, that Middlesbrough don’t win things. Beyond a couple of FA Amateur Cups in the 1890s, the Anglo-Scottish Cup in 1976 and a few clamberings to the summit of the league’s second tier, the trophy cupboard had stayed pretty bare since the club’s inception; and since the 1981 Kirin Cup, there had been nothing at all save for the Division One title of 1995. For 10 years or so, though, they had tilted here and there. Steve Gibson knew what he wanted, and he made sure that his managers knew it too.

“I just wanted to survive in the Premier League,” said McClaren to local newspaper The Gazette in September 2016 about his first couple of years. “But he, Steve Gibson, really wanted to win a cup, that was part of his vision for the club.” Gibson brooked no compromise on that vision, and when McClaren played a weakened team in a League Cup tie against Ipswich in November 2002 with the inevitable consequence, the chairman swiftly reminded him of his responsibilities. “He went mad,” McClaren recalled. “He said to me: ‘We’re a cup team, we field our strongest side.’”

And as 2003-04 came round, so they did. In round three of the League Cup, Massimo Maccarone showed that, if he could do it nowhere else that year, he could do it on a wet Tuesday night in Wigan; then within the space of two weeks in December the team survived a pair of penalty shoot-outs, against Everton and Tottenham, to bring them to a semi-final meeting with Arsenal.

Arsène Wenger’s approach to England’s secondary cup competition may differ from that of Steve Gibson but semi-finals can prick his interest, and the two legs would be duly sprinkled with Martin Keowns, Gilberto Silvas, Patrick Vieiras and José Antonio Reyeses. But Ugo Ehiogu kept the Gunners at bay in a disjointed first tie settled by Juninho; then Boudewijn Zenden chipped Arsenal goalkeeper Graham Stack with 20 minutes remaining in the second game, and despite Edu’s equaliser setting nerves on edge, a Reyes own goal with a few minutes to go put Boro into the final.

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middlesbroughBoro’s League Cup winners

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McClaren hadn’t made it to his seat by the time Joseph-Désiré Job put Boro 1-0 up against Bolton at the Millennium Stadium, and there were still fans making their way in as Zenden doubled the lead from the penalty spot in the seventh minute. Kevin Davies made it 2-1 after 20 minutes but Boro survived to half-time without further damage, and the second half slowly petered out towards a win that had been 128 years in the making.

Steve Gibson was fulfilled. But there was perhaps even greater magic to come.

 

• • • •

 

Off the back of that League Cup victory came Teesside’s first ever European adventure – and it was damn good fun, too. A team bolstered by the high-profile arrivals of Mark Viduka and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink managed a 4-1 aggregate win over Banik Ostrava in the UEFA Cup first round, and there were memorable home victories over Lazio and Partizan as they topped their group ahead of Villarreal. They fell to Sporting in the round of 16, but what of that? “Small town in Europe!” they sang. “We’re just a small town in Europe!”

Meanwhile, as the fans were off on a jolly around the continent, the team was enjoying an uncharacteristically solid domestic season – no calamitous start, no post-Christmas slump, no end-of-season collapse – and ended up seventh, high enough, given the machinations of the teams above them (not least Liverpool’s historic victory in Istanbul), to qualify for an immediate return to Europe.

And what a return it would be.

It started quietly with a first round meeting with Greek outfit Skoda Xanthi. Like Boro, Xanthi had played in Europe once previously, in their case in 2002-03. Unlike the Teessiders, they had lasted only one tie, and they hadn’t scored against Lazio in 180 minutes. In their third and fourth matches on the continent, they didn’t score either, and two first-leg goals for Boro, a tap-in from George Boateng and a deflected effort from Mark Viduka, ensured safe passage.

The group stage lacked the glamour of the previous year but made up for that in its quiet efficiency. There was a 1-0 away win over Grasshopper, a 3-0 home thumping of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and a trip to AZ for a 0-0 draw; then Bulgarian side Litex Lovech were brushed aside by two goals as Boro topped their group for the second year in a row to earn a round of 32 tie against VfB Stuttgart.

Middlesbrough have always been proud of their academy, which has produced more than 40 players for the first team since Dave Parnaby took charge in 1998. Three of them started the first leg in Germany – and if you include Brad Jones, brought over from Australia in his teens, academy products made up all but one of the seven-man bench.

Andrew Davies played the full 90 minutes. Stewart Downing was replaced by Adam Johnson a quarter of an hour from the end with Boro 2-0 up, while Jason Kennedy came on late in an effort to wind down the clock; and while the first of the Boro goals had come from Hasselbaink, the second was scored by the third homegrown player in the starting line-up, Parnaby’s son Stuart. It gave Boro what proved to be a much-needed cushion, as a free kick from Danijel Ljuboja in the 88th minute for the Germans – the first goal Boro had conceded all tournament – was followed 13 minutes into the second leg at the Riverside by an equaliser from Christian Tiffert. The Teessiders held the away goals advantage, though – and Stuttgart had nothing left.

Onwards then, to Rome, where the same pattern prevailed. This time, Yakubu’s penalty in the early stages of the home leg meant that Boro travelled to Italy with a one goal lead; Hasselbaink doubled the advantage half an hour into the second leg before two goals from Brazilian winger Mancini brought the overall score back to 2-2. That was how it stayed, and Middlesbrough were in the quarter-finals. Suddenly, the impossible was in sight.

Their quarter-final opponents, however, had been enjoying a bit of a fairytale of their own. Having won five league titles in seven seasons in the 1960s and 70s, Basel had spent years in the doldrums before the arrival of Christian Gross as manager in 1999. Under the man who had become such a caricature in his time in England with Spurs, they were transformed. By the time they came up against Middlesbrough they had won three league titles in the space of four years, beaten finalists Juventus in the Champions League in 2002, knocked out Celtic and drawn with Manchester United and with Liverpool twice. This one promised to be tough.

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Hasselbaink chelsea

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If comebacks had been the story of Boro’s advancement through the knock-out stages, the incomplete ones offered by Stuttgart and Roma were as nothing to what was coming next. Perhaps the Teessiders were inspired by their previous opponents’ having made it so hard for them; either way, they managed against Basel to make it even harder for themselves.

In the final few minutes of the first half of the first leg, Matías Delgado and David Degen sent the Swiss on their way to a deserved, if not quite comprehensive win. Back in England, 23 minutes into the second leg, Eduardo made it 3-0 on aggregate – an away goal which left Boro needing four.

Sometimes, for all that the game can so often speak for itself, it is commentary which defines a moment. Memories of Liverpool versus Arsenal in 1989 – even, one suspects, for many people who were there – will always be soundtracked by Brian Moore’s “It’s up for grabs now!”; and nor is watching highlights of Bayern Munich against Manchester United 10 years later the same without the voice of Clive Tyldesley. “Can Manchester United score? They always score …”

Rarely, though, does a commentator come to define a team.

Alastair Brownlee died in February at the age of 56 and just three months after being diagnosed with bowel cancer. He had been commentating and reporting on Middlesbrough for more than 30 years with a partisan streak that he never sought to hide. Away from his job, he would, as Steve Gibson put it, “do anything for anybody”, and he had raised money for numerous charities, Children in Need, the Middlesbrough Foundation, and children’s hospice Zoe’s Place among them. He was, quite simply, universally beloved.

And if there was one characteristic that summed up Brownlee – a man who legally (if temporarily) changed his name to Up The Boro Brownlee in aid of Sport Relief – it was an irrepressible optimism about the world in general and Middlesbrough Football Club in particular. That night at the Riverside, at 3-0 down on aggregate, he still believed.

With 33 minutes gone, Viduka picked up the ball from Yakubu 30 yards out, ran straight at the heart of the Basel defence and, from the edge of the box, drove it straight through the pensive left hand of Pascal Zuberbühler. It was enough for Ali. “There is hope!” he cried. “There is hope!” But they still needed three in a half.

Hasselbaink came off the bench at the break to replace James Morrison, but he wasn’t needed just before the hour as Viduka latched on to a perfectly-weighted through ball from Yakubu. The Australian’s first touch, with his right foot, took him round Zuberbühler; his second, with his left, bisected the covering defenders and found the bottom corner. “The Riverside erupts like Vesuvius here! All of a sudden, Boro are starting to believe.”

Basel’s Swedish centre-back Daniel Majstorović was sent off for a second booking. Five minutes later, and with little more than ten minutes left, Hasselbaink found the top corner of the net from outside the box. He didn’t look too happy about it. But Ali was. “Ohhhhh Jimmy, you beauty, lad!”

Crucially, though, they were still behind on aggregate – you can have all the momentum and belief that you like, but you’ve still got to stick it in the net – and so it remained until injury time. And then Fábio Rochemback’s shot came back off Zuberbühler and out to Massimo Maccarone. And words on a page cannot sum up that moment. Maybe, though, the YouTube footage (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFfjQ-E3V3E) can. A few moments later, it was done. The Swiss had rolled. William Tell, Heidi, the lot of ’em – they’d taken a pasting at the Riverside.

“Basel was phenomenal,” Steve McClaren told The Gazette. “I told everyone to really enjoy the night because a comeback like that only happens once in your career, it will never happen again. And then, three weeks later … Steaua.”

Ah, yes. Three weeks later, Steaua.

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maccarone middlesbroughMassimo Maccarone celebrates knocking out Steaua

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Since 1972, Steaua Bucharest have never finished lower than sixth in the Romanian top flight. In that time they have won 19 domestic titles, and in 1986, while Boro approached the brink of oblivion, Steaua were winning the European Cup. But they were tailing off in the early 2000s, trickling back through the Champions League groups and into the qualifying rounds. The 2005-06 UEFA Cup semi-final was their biggest European night for a generation.

They came into it on form. The only other side apart from Boro not to concede a goal in the group stages, they had swept past Real Betis and then edged out domestic rivals Rapid in the knock-outs; they hadn’t lost in nine in the league, and they’d had their feet up for a week.

Meanwhile, Boro had been all over the place. A loss at home to Newcastle preceded an FA Cup win against Charlton; defeat away to Portsmouth was followed by first a league victory over West Ham and then cup defeat against the same opponents – an up-and-down spell which encapsulated the club, in a season in which they lost to all three promoted teams while beating Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea.

The Romanians should have crushed them in Bucharest. Viduka missed the game through injury, but perhaps even more significantly, Gareth Southgate and Chris Riggott were absent at the back, and Nicolae Dicӑ’s goal after half an hour ought to have been one of many. Somehow it stayed 1-0 and the tie came back to the Riverside in the balance.

It didn’t stay there. Dicӑ doubled the lead 16 minutes in after Brad Jones – a replacement for the injured Mark Schwarzer – could only push Petre Marin’s fierce shot into his path, and eight minutes later Dorin Goian left Boro needing four goals in an hour for the second time in a month.

As if in search of ways to make it yet more difficult, this time they had to do it without their captain, Southgate’s return to European football having lasted just 28 minutes before he succumbed to a hamstring strain. Coach Steve Round convinced McClaren to replace him with Maccarone on the simple enough premise that with four goals to score, Boro needed strikers on the pitch, and within 10 minutes of the change, the Italian had drilled a low shot past Carlos Fernandes. This time, Ali was a little more circumspect – at least, for him. “Boro possibly,” he cried, “possibly, have some hope yet.”

Indeed they did, although they had to wait another half an hour – and for the arrival of yet another striker in Yakubu – before Mark Viduka’s “powerful, powerful, powerful” (looping) header from a Downing cross drew them level on the night.

Tick, tock, tick, tock. Twenty minutes on the clock, and the ball fell to Downing again after Steaua failed to sort themselves out as a long throw bobbled through the area. The winger’s effort was creeping in before being clawed away by the fingertips of Fernandes, but Riggott was following in and the rebound fell kindly. Ali could hardly control himself: “It’s in! It’s in, Boro have scored! The Boro have scored! The Boro have scooooored!”

• • • •

viduka middlesbroughMark Viduka

• • • •

Now it almost seemed inevitable. But wave after wave of Middlesbrough attacks came to nothing, until with two minutes of normal time remaining, a split-second’s lapse in concentration from Daniel Balan in the right back position for Steaua left Downing on the ball once more. A dropped shoulder, a turn of pace, a clipped cross to the far post and Maccarone hurling himself into a diving …  “Header… Gooooooaaaaallll! Massimo Maccarone!”

Bedlam in the stadium. Silence in the commentary box. A rattle, as Ali and co-commentator Bernie Slaven frantically searched the floor for the microphone that the former had dropped in his excitement. “Massimo Maccarone! Maccarone’s header, and the Boro have struck a stake to the heart of Dracula’s boys!” A stereotype for every occasion, Ali. But there was never any malice to it.

Ehiogu on as an injury-time substitute. Ehiogu with a vital injury-time block as Steaua looked to counter. A free-kick, launched into the Boro box but headed clear by Franck Queudrue. And then: “It’s Eindhoven! It’s Eindhoven! Boro have made it! One of the most glorious nights in the history of football! We go back to 1876, the infant Hercules, found out of the foundries of Teesside, mined out of the Eston Hills, now roaring all the way to Eindhoven in the UEFA Cup final! It’s party party party, everybody round my house for a parmo!”

They lost 4-0 to Sevilla in Holland. Typical Boro. But we won’t talk about that.

 

• • • •

 

What was the legacy, then, of those glorious times and of the impossible comeback that happened twice in a month? Well, almost exclusively negative. Indubitably, those two games directly led to Steve McClaren getting the England job; perhaps his appointment itself, in the week before the final, even cost his team the cup. And the times have been a lot tougher since.

Southgate replaced McClaren as manager but was left with the responsibility of trimming the squad (or more pertinently, the wage bill) while improving the team, and the inevitable relegation in 2009 meant the departures of club captain Robert Huth and the previous season’s top scorer Tuncay, not to mention Downing and really not to mention Afonso Alves.

Southgate didn’t last much longer after that, and then Gordon Strachan and Tony Mowbray were probably mistakes, but at least Boro are back in the Premier League now, and at just the right time too. It took a gamble from Steve Gibson – the signings of Jordan Rhodes and David Nugent, and the return of Downing, were only justifiable by Premier League cash. But even if they do go down, they should be financially set fair for a while – 30 years after he kept Boro alive, Gibson has once again secured their immediate future.

And if this season might well prove a struggle – at least in the league – they’ve flexed their cup muscles again in the last year or so at the expense of both halves of Manchester. It’s easy to wonder if, in their weaker moments, Teesside minds are turning to the outside chance of another European tour in the not-too-distant future.

It couldn’t be the same, though. Could it?

By Harry Reardon. Follow @hsreardon