Unexpected Journeys: Middlesbrough’s year of miracles in the UEFA Cup

Unexpected Journeys : Chapter 4

Words By Sean Cole Illustration by Philippe Fenner
August 24, 2018

Middlesbrough’s gleefully unexpected run to the UEFA Cup final has perhaps increasingly been defined by what came next for the club and the managers concerned. None were able to build on that success. Just six days before a 4-0 defeat to Sevilla brought his reign to a close, it was announced that Steve McClaren would take over from Sven-Goran Eriksson as England manager after that summer’s World Cup. Gareth Southgate was to be his replacement on Teesside.

The next few years weren’t kind to McClaren and Southgate, or the sides they led, as England failed to qualify for Euro 2008 and Middlesbrough were relegated from the Premier League. Their managerial reputations suffered lasting damage that led to spells in the wilderness for both men, although success at the World Cup has recently revived Southgate’s fortunes.

For five seasons they were on the same side at Boro – McClaren as manager and Southgate as his loyal lieutenant. The centre back was the first signing McClaren ever made, arriving from Aston Villa for £6.5million in July 2001. He was immediately installed as the club’s captain, a leader on the pitch and in the dressing room.

“Honestly, it was fantastic to play with Gareth,” says Chris Riggott, who partnered Southgate in central defence for much of the UEFA Cup run. “It’s one of those things that you only really reflect on in hindsight but he certainly made the game easier for me. Not only was he such a good player but he taught me just how valuable instructions are, and the importance of having a mouthpiece on the field. It helps you positionally, but also in terms of encouragement and being in that positive state of mind regardless of what’s happened.

“It was about not letting mistakes affect you, and Gareth was particularly strong at that. Ugo Ehiogu was similar. They were mentally so tough. I’d put them in the same bracket in that kind of respect. Coming from Derby it wasn’t something I was used to. We had good players but they were often foreign so it was bit different. Here I had guys I could look up to and learn from. They taught me a lot about how to conduct myself on and off the field. They were so professional and it made me realise what it took to get to that next level.”

Under McClaren, who Riggott credits as one of the best and most tactically-astute coaches in the game, Middlesbrough broke new ground. They won the League Cup in 2004 to claim their first ever major trophy and also claimed a place in Europe for the first time in the club’s history as a result. Despite being knocked out by Sporting Lisbon in the round of 16, plenty of lessons were learned that would prove beneficial for next time.

“It was a much different style and tempo playing against European teams,” says Riggott. “It was much slower compared to the rough and tumble of the Premier League. It’s a bit of a generalisation but they were much more patient and you had to be mentally more switched on. That first experience in Europe helped us immeasurably for the following season.

“I remember playing against Villarreal and [Juan Roman] Riquelme. That’s the one that sticks in my mind as being particularly difficult. I think we left Mark Viduka and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink out and we were basically just defending for the whole of the first half. We changed it at half time and brought those two on, which helped us, but I remember sitting in the dressing room afterwards and thinking, ‘I need to get better, because these guys are really good.’ We had some very tough games where I learned an awful lot, that’s for sure.”

Riggott and the rest put those lessons into practice and came back stronger, as Middlesbrough returned from that chastening experience to reach the UEFA Cup final a year later. It was a story of late goals, sensational comebacks and surprise heroes which more than compensated for a somewhat drab league campaign. They seemed to specialise in knockout competitions, also making it to the quarter-finals of the League Cup and the semi-finals of the FA Cup.

European qualification was secured through a seventh-place finish in the top flight, the club’s best since 1975, but only after a tense final day encounter with Manchester City at the City of Manchester stadium. The visitors could have leapfrogged Middlesbrough with a win, but the game finished in a 1-1 draw after Mark Schwarzer saved a Robbie Fowler penalty in injury time. As the pressure built David James had even been sent up front in the hope of forcing a late goal.

Next season’s UEFA Cup run started in rather more routine fashion. Indeed, there was little hint of the drama to come later on in the competition as Middlesbrough made short work of Skoda Xanthi in the first round. The Greek side, who notably featured former Boro cult hero Emerson, were beaten 2-0 in the home leg as George Boateng and Mark Viduka scored either side of half time.

A hardy group of around 100 fans then travelled to see Boro complete the job with a 0-0 draw at the Xanthi FC Arena. The attendance was just over 5,000 and Riggott doesn’t remember it as the most imposing of venues he’s ever played in. “That was almost like a cornfield in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “There was one stand. So it was quite a contrast to playing against the big clubs like Stuttgart and Roma.”

That result took Middlesbrough through to the group stage where they were drawn alongside four other teams – Grasshoppers Zurich, AZ Alkmaar, Litex Lovech and FC Dnipro. The top three would go through. Boro topped their group on goal difference, winning three of their four games and keeping clean sheets in each of them.

If the defence was thriving in Europe, Middlesbrough’s strikers were hitting their stride too. Massimo Maccarone had been something of a misfit since signing arriving from Empoli three years previously for a club record fee, but he scored both goals in the win over Litex Lovech and went on to be a key figure in the UEFA Cup campaign. Something about the big occasion, under the lights at the Riverside, seemed to bring the best out of him.

“He had a good start at the club but then he struggled a bit. I think maybe the physical nature of the league was quite tough for him, as many find. Perhaps that European style suited him and in the later games when we were throwing bodies forward he got a chance that maybe he wouldn’t have done in the league. Thankfully he did and he took his goals superbly well.”

Before Maccarone’s heroics, Stuttgart were on the agenda in the round of 32. They were the better side in the home leg and Mark Schwarzer needed to be on top form to deny the Germans. Against the run of play, Middlesbrough scored twice. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink fired a shot through the legs of Timo Hildebrand and Stuart Parnaby swept in the second just after the break. Danijel Ljuboja, who’d been knocking on the door all game, pulled one back with a free kick.

The freezing conditions, combined with blustery wind and rain, turned the home leg into a war of attrition. McClaren’s cautious approach invited Stuttgart onto his team and they offered a much greater attacking threat, particularly in the opening stages. Christian Tiffert made it 2-2 on aggregate with 77 minutes still to play but Middlesbrough were able to cling on and progress to the next round on away goals.

Two weeks later, Roma came to the Riverside on the back of a 13-game unbeaten run, including 11 straight victories, in Serie A. Their play may have been inhibited by a drenched pitch but Middlesbrough didn’t seem to mind. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was brought down by young goalkeeper Gianluca Curci. Yakubu converted the penalty to give them an early lead and for all their neat passing Roma lacked a cutting edge. Mark Schwarzer was little more than a spectator.

The lead Middlesbrough took to the Italian capital could have been greater but for a rare lack of composure from Gaizka Mendieta. However, simple football concerns soon paled into insignificance as news emerged that a group of travelling fans had been attacked the night before the match by Roma Ultras carrying knives, bottles and an axe. Three were stabbed and several others were treated for injuries at a local hospital. The news was kept from the players until after the game, which went ahead in a typically intimidating atmosphere.

“I remember doing the warm up and a firecracker or something was set off in the stands. We didn’t know what it was and all the players jumped when it went off,” says Riggott. “It was so loud. The atmosphere was phenomenal. The Roma game really sticks out from that run, especially in terms of playing against a big name.”

The Middlesbrough players did their best to concentrate on the task at hand in difficult circumstances – a noisy and hostile Stadio Olimpico. After the home side failed to take advantage of some presentable openings, or else were denied by an inspired Schwarzer, Hasselbaink struck. His excellent header put McClaren’s side in control and meant that Roma needed to find three goals to go through.

Despite the best efforts of Mancini, who scored once from open play and once from the penalty spot, they were unable to turn things around. The all-important third goal proved elusive. Middlesbrough held on to clinch a place in the quarter-finals and send their 3,500 supporters home happy after the traumatic events of the previous night.

They might not have carried the same cachet as Roma, but Swiss champions FC Basel, led by former Tottenham Hotspur manager Christian Gross, were formidable quarter-final opponents with an impressive home record. Boro were caught cold by two goals in the space of a couple of minutes at the end of the first half. The situation was just about salvageable but looked beyond repair when a poacher’s finish from Eduardo at the start of the return leg had Basel cruising towards the semi-finals.

Somehow a Middlesbrough side not known for its goalscoring ability would have to conjure up four without reply in what remained of the match. Mark Viduka got them started and found a second shortly before the hour mark to put them ahead on the night. Time felt like it was draining away but Boro threw everything they had at their opponents. Four strikers were on the pitch as Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Massimo Maccarone came off the bench to add even more firepower.

Middlesbrough were utterly relentless. Penned back in their own half, Basel couldn’t escape and were doing their best to repel wave after wave of attacks. But in the first of two incredible comebacks that would take them to the final, Boro simply refused to be beaten. Hasselbaink curled the ball into the top corner and then, with the final whistle imminent, Fabio Rochemback was denied but Maccarone squeezed in the rebound from a tight angle.

After ripping his shirt off the striker was swamped by teammates. On commentary duty for ITV, Peter Drury was at his exultant best. “The heart and soul of a football club!” he roared. “Hats off! Hats off! Middlesbrough, you made it happen in the most astonishing fashion! That is pure guts. They dared to do it when it couldn’t be done.” Not only that – they did it again.

A 1-0 loss away to Steaua Bucharest was damaging but nowhere near as much as another slow start at the Riverside. Deputy goalkeeper Brad Jones was beaten twice and all seemed hopeless. A repeat of their quarter-final heroics was needed to progress, another four-goal salvo to rescue their fading dreams of reaching the final in Eindhoven.

“I think anyone would be hard pushed to say they fancied us at 3-0 down, but having done it already, you just never know,” says Riggott. “It was a tough one but we just went balls to the wall and threw everyone forward. We ended up with a back three of me, Franck Queudrue and Stuart Parnaby. We were going for it and it was a good lesson in never giving up and just playing to the final whistle. It was a miraculous comeback.”

Shortly after Dorin Goian had made it 3-0 on aggregate, Massimo Maccarone was summoned from the bench in place of the injured Gareth Southgate and delivered another unforgettable contribution. He drilled one in to lift the crowd and get them believing again. Viduka added a second from Stewart Downing’s cross and Chris Riggott turned in a rebound from close range to set up a dramatic finale.

“Four days before that we’d lost to West Ham at Villa Park in the semi-final of the FA Cup and I’d missed a sitter to equalise a few minutes from the end,” he says. “I was obviously gutted and I remember my brother saying after the game, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to get one on Thursday.’ Thankfully he was right and we managed to sneak through. We definitely did it the hard way.”

As Boro continued to apply the pressure with minutes remaining, Steaua looked to smuggle the ball clear, but a poor touch presented Downing with the chance to beat his man and swing in another cross from the left. It reached the far post where a flying header from Maccarone rippled the net and completed a second remarkable turnaround in the space of a month. Against all the odds, Boro were final-bound. “The feeling was just one of excitement. I thought we were going to go on and win it. I really fancied us to do it,” says Riggott.

After all the turmoil they’d been through to reach this point, perhaps Middlesbrough’s store of second chances had been used up. There was to be no fairytale ending for Boro, who were ruthlessly dismantled by a talented Sevilla side. Luis Fabiano gave them the lead and not even the half-time introduction of the talismanic Maccarone had any effect. Three late goals added substantial, and arguably undeserved, gloss to the scoreline.

“One of the dangers when you have a run like that is that you start to feel like your name’s on the cup. We didn’t approach it like that obviously, but with all the hysteria of the semi-final and getting through, sometimes emotionally that can have a bit of a draining effect. The psychological aspect can be just as important as the physical one sometimes. We didn’t have much in the tank at the end there.”

With their cup exploits at home and abroad, Middlesbrough played 64 games in total that season, only to return empty-handed. There might not have been any tangible success to look back on but those heady nights of intoxicating possibility, where sheer force of will and belief seemed enough to surmount any challenge, will always endure in the minds of the players and supporters who made it possible.

“It was an incredible achievement to get to the final. Funnily enough, I live over in America now, ten minutes away from Paul Barron, who was our old goalkeeping coach. We get together every now and again, and we end up talking about it and reflecting on it. It was amazing that we got there when you look at the teams that we had to beat and the obstacles we had to overcome,” says Riggott.

“We had some good players ourselves, don’t get me wrong, but we did well to be battling on three fronts with the league and the FA Cup too. It was an amazing story and the only negative, if there was one, was that we didn’t kick on from there as a club.

“Obviously Steve [McClaren] left after that final and I think Gareth’s said it was a very tall order for him to come in and go from a player to a manager with very little experience. There’s no blame attached to anyone but it’s just a shame that the club didn’t kick on from there. In hindsight that was really the high point of the modern era for Middlesbrough.”

Series: Unexpected Journeys

Unexpected Journeys: When Ipswich Town’s tractor boys roared into Europe Unexpected Journeys: Relegated Wigan Athletic take solace in the Europa League Unexpected Journeys: Relegated Birmingham rebound in the Europa League Unexpected Journeys: Middlesbrough’s year of miracles in the UEFA Cup Unexpected Journeys: When Stoke City ran up the Europa League air miles Unexpected Journeys: When Fulham danced with Europe’s best
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