Middlesbrough’s road to the UEFA Cup Final: How Steve McClaren almost guided Boro into European folklore

Middlesbrough 2006 UEFA Cup Final

When it comes to the English teams and their success in European competitions, sides like Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United often spring to mind in terms of the Champions League. However in the UEFA Cup, or as it’s known these days as the Europa League, there was another English side who nearly cemented themselves in European folklore – and that team was Middlesborough FC.

Under the management of the former Manchester United coach Steve McClaren,  a competitive team had been built at the Teeside outfit and during their run in the 2005/06 UEFA Cup season, they would go on to make the final of the competition.

For this week’s story, I want to focus on Middlesborough’s journey from 2001 through to their 2005/06 UEFA Cup season and discuss what made that campaign one of the best for the Teessiders in recent memory.

2005/06 UEFA Cup Campaign: A breathtaking campaign of magical moments

Middlesborough would be put into Group D of the 2005/06 UEFA Cup, which contained Dutch side AZ Alkmaar, Bulgarian outfit Litex Lovech, Ukrainian side Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Swiss giants Grasshopper Club Zürich.

During the group stages of the competition, McClaren’s side made easy work of their opponents as they topped the group with 10 points alongside AZ Alkmaar, with The Boro having a better goal difference by two goals. They dispatched Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, Grasshopper Club Zurich and Litex Lovech by 3-0, 2-0 and 1-0 respectively, whilst also drawing 0-0 with AZ Alkmaar.

With the goals coming from Jimmy Floyd Hasslebaink, Mark Viduka, Yakubu and Massimo Maccarone, there was very little stopping them from advancing into the next phase of the UEFA Cup.

Round of 32: VfB Stuttgart knockout rounds

The round of 32 was next for McClaren’s Boro side and German outfit VfB Stuttgart would be their opponents. A tough battle would lie ahead and would present a real battle for the Teessiders at this stage of the competition.

Dutch forward Hasselbaink gave Boro the lead after 18 minutes when he capitalised on a defensive error to drive his shot low into the net. McClaren’s men made it 2-0 just a minute into the second half when Stuart Parnaby got on the end of a superb pinpoint pass to stroke home from seven yards out.

However, with just under ten minutes remaining Stuttgart got a free-kick right on the edge of the area, and Danijel Ljuboja was able to bury it into Schwarzer’s bottom right-hand corner. This set up a nervy finish in Germany, but Boro stood firm and got over the line to secure a brilliant 2-1 away win to take back to The Riverside a week later.

The second leg carried on the nervousness shown at the end of the first leg, with Boro defending valiantly as Stuttgart looked to get an early goal. Which they were able to get when Ljuboja won possession just up from the edge of the Boro penalty area, the ball then made its way to Christian Tiffert, who rode one challenge before hitting a sweet, low shot into the back of Schwarzer’s net.

The Boro faithful were even more nervous than they were before, as Stuttgart only needed one more goal to win the tie and send the Teessiders out. But despite heavy amounts of pressure, McClaren’s defence once again held firm and his side eventually held on to advance into the Round of 16 on away goals.

Round of 16 – AS Roma

AS Roma would be next for McClaren and his players, another tough side that would once again test the skill, determination and willingness of the Boro squad. This time it was the Teessiders who would home in the first leg, and Boro looked to get an early opener with Cattermole and Mendieta looking dangerous.

Meanwhile, Roma also made the perfect start with just six minutes played when Mexes played a delightful pass-through to Perrotta, who controlled elegantly to strike a low-driven shot past Schwarzer and was only cleared off the line by the on-rushing Gareth Southgate.

The breakthrough came just a few minutes later Mendieta made a bursting run into Roma territory and found Hasselbaink with a pass, controlling the ball well before being brought down inside the 18-yard box by goalkeeper Gianluca Curci. Yakubu, cool as a cucumber, slotted the ball from the penalty spot to score his 19th goal of the season.

The game then became contested more in the midfield, with a distinct lack of quality in the final third as Boro looked to extend their lead while Roma was searching for an equalising goal. In the end, neither side could find the back of the net again and the match was an impressive 1-0 win for McClaren’s men going into the second leg in Italy.

Just like the first leg, the second leg was another close game which saw both sides going for the win and displaying their qualities up and down the pitch. Roma made the better start and hit the woodwork after 24 minutes gone, Bovo dispossessing Stuart Downing and striking a brilliant effort which rattled the crossbar.

But just eight minutes later, Boro took the lead when Downing put a superb cross the find Hasslebaink, who got ahead of Mexes and glanced a well-driven header into the net from eight yards out. Sending the Traveling Teessiders into raptures in the away end.

However, they would be brought down to Earth somewhat when Roma got a goal back three minutes from halftime. Chivu picked out Taddei, who pulled the ball back for Mancini who drilled a rising drive past Schwarzer from 11 yards.

This set up a nervy second half as Roma cranked up the pressure in their quest to complete a stunning comeback and after several decent chances, the Italian outfit was handed a lifeline when Ray Parlour was deemed to have brought down Okaka on the edge of the six-yard box and amid furious protests, the Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo awarded a penalty.

Mancini converted from the spot, sending Schwarzer the wrong away and making the travelling Teessiders even more nervous in the away end. However, despite a golden opportunity eight minutes from time, McClaren’s men once again stood firm as they overcame the eventual 10-men of Roma to book their place into the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup.

The Quarter-Finals – FC Basel

Swiss side FC Basel were up next in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals, with The Boro going to Switzerland for the first leg of the tie. McClaren went with the same game plan as he had for the previous two ties and tried to take the game to FC Basel.

However, despite a couple of decent chances in the first half from Hasselbaink, FC Basel got themselves settled and took the game to McClaren and his players. The wet surface made for fast-flowing football and slick passing as Eduardo had a decent chance for the home side, but he emulated Hasselbaink by hooking wide from 20 yards.

Both sides had their half-chances, with Hasslebank just heading wide from a Downing cross, but with three minutes reaming of the first half, FC Basel got their lead. Matias Delgado cut in from the left-hand side, skipping past Parlour and shooting for goal from 25 yards. The ball bounced on the edge of the six-yard box and bounced over the Boro goalkeeper.

The Swiss side then made it 2-0 in the dying seconds of the first half, when Eduardo turned well 30 yards from goal to play a smart ball down the left-hand side of the Boro defence, which was given a hard time all half. David Degen then latched onto the ball and shot on goal from a difficult angled 12 yards out, beating the Aussie shot-stopper at his near post.

Middlesbrough tried to get back into the game when Hasselbaink forced a full-stretched save from Zuberbuhler, before having to defend quite well with Parnaby blocking Eduardo to deny FC Basel their third in the game. The Swiss side had another chance to make it 3-0 when substitute Scott Chipperfield’s low shot of just seven yards was cleared off the line by Riggott.

With the first leg ending in a 2-0 defeat, McClaren’s men had it all to do in the second leg if they were to get past FC Basel and advance into the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup.

For the second leg at The Riverside, Boro almost made the perfect within seconds after kickoff but Yukubu could only find the side-netting. But after some back and forth between the two sides, FC Basel got an elusive away goal in the 22nd minute when A long Petric free-kick to the back post was headed back across goal by Boris Smiljanic and tucked in by Eduardo from inside the six-yard box.

With the tie at 3-0, it looked to be game, set and match, but McClaren and his players dug deep and found a way back into the game. With 33 minutes played, Yakubu got the ball first in the Basel half, and Viduka took over, got past one tackle on the edge of the area and smashed a powerful drive which seemed to swerve as Zuberbuhler went one way and the ball the other.

The Teessiders now had the momentum going into the interval, and they could carry on that momentum as Viduka and Parnaby both had decent chances to score. Then in the 56th minute, Boro got their next goal when Boateng played a decent 15-yard ball to Viduka, who rounded Zuberbuhler and slotted home.

Then with just 12 minutes left to play, Hasselbaink struck home a brilliant shot from just outside the box and into the top right-hand corner of Zuberbuhler’s net. The tie is now drawn at 3-3 and Boro has all the momentum on their side.

Heading into the 90th minute, the Boro fans were on their feet as Rochemback shot for goal, Zuberbuhler could only palm away to his right-hand side and Massimo Maccarone was there to pounce and give McClaren’s team the lead in injury time. Sending the Teessiders into euphoria.

The match ended 4-3 and Middlesbrough had just completed one of the best comebacks in the competition’s history, something which they’ll have to repeat during their semi-final tie against Steaua Bucharest of Romania.

The Semi-Final – Steaua Bucharest

Just like in the first leg of the quarter-final against FC Basel, McClaren’s men would play the first leg away, this time against Steaua Bucharest of Romania. It would be another fiercely poised tie which contained twists and turns along the way.

The game was quite a lively affair, Bucharest just having the edge in chances created whereas Middlesbrough was not able to create anything clear-cut despite their best efforts. Then in the 29th minute, Bucharest took the lead.

A hopeful ball was played into the Boro box and was flicked on. George Boateng failed to close down Nicolae Dica who turned sharply 16 yards out to crack a right-footed shot well out of reach of Mark Schwarzer.

During the second half, Boro tried to crank up the pressure on the Romanian outfit in search of an equalising goal, but they failed to test keeper Carlos Alberto with any kind of significant chances.

Bucharest piled more pressure onto the Boro defence to extend their lead, with Bates and Boateng both having to clear their defence to keep the home side out. In the end, it finished 1-0 to Steaua Bucharest and McClaren once again found himself with his team with a losing deficit going into the second leg of a European knockout tie.

Despite being behind in the tie, the Boro faithful were optimistic their side could turn the game around and win the tie, as they did in the previous round against FC Basel. But they nearly went a goal down early in the game when Nicolae Dica headed just over from a Gabriel Bostina corner.

But with just over 15 minutes gone, Bucharest went in front after  A shot from 22 yards from Petre Marin proved difficult for Jones, who spilt possession into the path of Nicolae Dica, who took his time, steadied himself and fired in from 10 yards.

Things would only get bad to worse when they would go 2-0 down on the night after just 23 minutes played. Steaua’s second corner in quick succession fell to Dorin Goian, whose initial header was only parried by Jones and the giant defender smashed home the loose ball from seven yards.

At this point, most Boro most probably thought they can’t repeat their heroics in the previous round, but under the management of McClaren, this Boro side never gave up.

With 33 minutes played a long ball from Taylor found Downing midway inside the Bucharest half. A low pass set up Massimo Maccarone and a low cross-shot from 10 yards flew across the goalkeeper – maybe, just maybe, there was hope.

They went into the halftime interval just as they did in the last tie, meaning they had slight momentum despite being two goals down once again. Something which they would use to pull off another stunning European comeback.

Despite this hope and momentum, Bucharest tried their best to suck the life out of The Riverside, but in the 64th minute, the crowd would roar when Downing sent over a superb left-wing cross which Mark Viduka headed in from the edge of the six-yard box.

Downing would be involved once again as he cut in from the left-hand side and shot for goal. His effort took a deflection and was tucked in by Chris Riggott from seven yards out.

The Riverside was bouncing as the fans couldn’t believe what they were seeing, surely they couldn’t do it again? Well, with less than a minute left to play, they completed their second consecutive turnaround.

Downing steadied himself, cut past a defender, swung over a superb left-wing cross and Massimo Maccarone rose high to head home at the back post. Boro conceded a free-kick right on the edge of the box. A low shot took a deflection and was cleared and a shrill whistle from a small Slovakian signalled celebrations the like of which Teesside has never seen.

They had done it the hard way, but Steve McClaren had guided the Teessiders to their first-ever European final. An achievement that many believed was impossible, but for McClaren’s Boro side was just another weekday.

The UEFA Cup Final – Sevilla

Spanish outfit Sevilla awaited them in the final in Eindhoven. After all the hard work of reaching the final, including two stunning injury-time comebacks, this match seemed to be just a be asking a bit too much for McClaren and his players.

Despite their best efforts, they couldn’t withstand the pressure and the Spanish outfit took the lead with 25 minutes gone. A right-wing cross from deep from Daniel Alves was perfect for Luis Fabiano, who powerfully headed beyond Schwarzer from the edge of the six-yard box.

The Teessiders tried all they could to find an equaliser and managed to stay in the game for as long as they could. But with just 12 minutes left to play, Sevilla doubled their lead after A quick break had Boro stretched and Schwarzer could only parry a low shot from Kanoute into the path of Enzo Maresca, who tucked home from close range.

Six minutes later it was 3-0 as Enzo Maresca latched onto a cross and sent a low left-footed shot through a crowded box past the Aussie shot-stopper.

And to complete a miserable day in the Netherlands, the Spanish side made it 4-0 in the final minute of the game when Schwarzer could only parry a shot from Jesus Navas and Freddie Kanoute scored from close range.

It was a sad end to what was an extraordinary UEFA Cup journey, one full of twists and turns, from agony to ecstasy, it truly had everything you could want in a European Cup run, apart from the fairytale ending.

Even though their journey ended in tears, their effort, determination and willingness to fight until the very end made them the most entertaining teams to watch in the history of the UEFA Cup and their story will be told to future generations in the years to come.