• Well Done Michael He's 13

The Teesside Miracles

When prompted to write about great footballing comebacks, it is impossible not to instantly summon memories of well documented turnarounds, such as the 1999 Champions League final, when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer left Bayern Munich players shell shocked. The 2005 final in Istanbul, when Liverpool clawed back a 3-0 deficit to win on penalties, and of course, the shared continental excitement that recent couldn’t-be-scripted Champions League comebacks have prompted. Liverpool vs Barcelona, Manchester United vs PSG and Barcelona vs PSG, all instant classics of the live streaming age. There are lesser recalled but no less phenomenal comebacks, such as Deportivo trouncing reigning champions AC Milan 4-0 in 2004 after a 4-1 loss in the first leg. Newcastle fans will undoubtedly cite Checik Tiotes last minute wondergoal in a 4-4 draw with Arsenal. Arsenal fans, in turn, might mention the Kanu masterclass at Stamford Bridge in 1999. An old head in a Turin café might regale you with the tale of when Torino came back from two down against Platini’s Juventus in the early eighties. Yes, every fan of every club, big or small, will be able to tell you in wide-eyed detail about why their comeback was the greatest of them all. There is nothing in football quite like the rollercoaster of torment and joy that a comeback inside 90 minutes provides.

I’m going to take you on a journey to the north-east of England, where perhaps only two miracles from a place as unglamorous as Middlesbrough could be so easily forgotten.

Anybody who has been to Middlesbrough can advise that the tired, grim imagery the town is so often painted with is undeserved, or at the very least, an exaggeration. Middlesbrough has two concert halls, plenty of parks and museums, proud, friendly locals and one of the best stadiums in English football. But for all its hidden charms and character, what exactly coaxed the likes of Fabrizio Ravanelli, Emerson and Juninho and Alen Boksic to Teesside, still remains a mystery. Middlesbrough Football Club earned a reputation for punching above its weight in the mid-nineties, during Bryan Robson’s revolution. After some up and down seasons, including the heart-breaking relegation of 1997 - the result of being docked 3 points - the club found stability in the noughties, progressing hugely under the management of Steve McClaren. McClaren delivered the first major trophy in 128 years in 2004, beating Bolton in the League Cup final in Cardiff. In 2004/2005 they finished 7th, sealing a second season in Europe after Mark Schwarzer saved a last kick of the season penalty from Robbie Fowler, away at Man City.

What followed is the stuff of Teesside legend. Two four-goal comebacks in the space of three weeks. Two last second winners. And a hero born in the shape of a cue ball bald, Italian misfit.

Anticipating a gruelling 2005/2006 season, McClaren bolstered his squad with Austrian hardman Emmanuel Pogatetz, Fabio Rochemback and Abel Xavier. Most significantly, Yakubu Ayegbeni arrived for 7.5m pounds from Portsmouth. Schwarzer, Ehiogu, Southgate, Boateng, Mendieta and Parlour provided a supremely experienced spine, while youthful British talents Downing, Parnaby, RIggott, Johnson, Cattermole and Morrison provided energy and excitement that was expertly curated by McClaren. Most impressive of all was the stable of forwards. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Mark Viduka and Yakubu were all proven Premier League scorers of high calibre. The options were rounded off by Massimo Maccarone, or ‘Big Mac,’ who’d spent the previous season on loan back in Italy after failing to settle at Boro following a big money move.

Every goal scored by Middlesbrough cult hero Massimo Maccarone.

Middlesbrough’s previous season of European experience showed in the group stage, as they convincingly topped AZ from Holland, Swiss side Grasshoppers, Bulgarians Litex Lovech and Ukrainians Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in a geographically varied group that could only be seen in the Uefa Cup. Boro were drawn against VFB Stuttgart in the last 32, and pulled off a historic away win on German soil through goals from Hasselbaink and academy graduate Stuart Parnaby. Parnaby’s goal was a fitting reward for a club whose focus on youth development is as impressive as their eye for a big-name deal. After losing the home leg, Boro progressed on away goals, to face Italian giants Roma in the last 16.

Roma’s side, managed by Luciano Spaletti, contained Panucci, Kuffour, Mexes, Chivu, would-be World Cup winners De Rossi and Perrotta and the occasionally brilliant Brazilian, Mancini, though Franceso Totti missed both ties through injury. Such was their talent that Roma would finish the domestic season in second place. Gareth Southgate and George Boateng delivered the sort of every-blade-of-grass performances that The Riverside will never forget. An early Yakubu penalty, so calmly slotted in, preceded 80 minutes of resolute defending, with another local graduate, 18-year-old Lee Cattermole, earning the man of the match reward for a tiresome midfield performance against such illustrious opposition. Middlesbrough headed for the eternal city and the Stadio Olimpico with a lead to protect. With thirty minutes played in Rome, they doubled their advantage, Hasselbaink powering in a header from an inch perfect Stewart Downing cross. Downing, just 21, arguably found his best form in Europe for Boro, and would be rewarded with a place in Sven Goran Eriksson’s 2006 World Cup squad. Mancini hit back with a brace, but Middlesbrough held on, long into a Roman night that felt like it might never end. The final whistle was met by the usually placid Gareth Southgate, screaming to the Boro faithful in the away stand. In addition to Cattermole and Downing, local boy Andrew Davis – who signed for Boro aged 13 – was on the field that famous night in Italy, a credit to local owner and lifelong fan Steve Gibson’s philosophy.

Then came the first miracle. After losing 2-0 away at Basel, the Swiss side came to The Riverside in a commanding position. An early goal silenced the home crowd, who had felt an early Boro goal was essential. Boro found themselves 3-0 down on aggregate, with the away goal meaning they needed 4 goals in the last hour of football to keep their dreams of making it to the Eindhoven final alive. Viduka pulled a goal back before half time, and perhaps heartened by his years as Sir Alex Ferguson’s sidekick, McClaren placed his faith in the magical capabilities of European nights under floodlights, bringing on Hasselbaink at half-time and going with three up top, while Massimo Maccarone watched from the bench. The attacking switch paid off and Viduka pulled another back just before the hour, prompting McLaren to show his hand and bring on Maccarone, his final striker.

Anybody who has watched this sort of game, or even better, experienced it from inside the stadium, knows the feeling of thousands of hearts beating to the same rhythm, trying to magic up a goal by combined power of will.

By the time Hasselbaink rattled in a long-range screamer to level the tie, there was an air of inevitability about what would happen. But somehow, time ticked on and with just a minute to play, Middlesbrough were heading out. McLaren urged his full backs forward, while Riggott and Southgate stayed back, recycling play to Rochemback and Boateng and finally, as the clock ticked over 90 minutes, Rochemback’s long range shot was parried, and gambling on a rebound, ‘Big Mac’ stole a march on the full back, and swept in the winner with virtually the last kick of the game. Bedlam followed, the wide angled shots of the main stand looking as if an earthquake had hit the studio. Ali Brownlee, from Borotv, was screaming something about Lazarus and somewhere under a swarm of Boro shirts and substitutes, Massimo Maccarone was purging three years of frustration and etching his name into Middlesbrough folklore. It is simply impossible to watch the footage, regardless of allegiance, and not be moved to ear to ear smiling and spine-tingling joy. (Unless you’re a still-bitter fan from northern Switzerland).

It was a once in a lifetime night for every person connected with the North East club.

And then it happened again.

In the semi-final, following a lacklustre one-nil defeat away at Steaua Bucharest, Middlesbrough conceded two cheap first half goals at The Riverside, to face a 3-nil deficit, again requiring 4 goals, just 3 weeks after the first miracle against Basel. After conceding the second, the stars aligned in that peculiar way that football sometimes allows, and Gareth Southgate went off injured. McClaren, emboldened by the quarter-final win, brought on none other than Massimo Maccarone, throwing caution to the wind earlier than he might have had Southgate not pulled up. Within 7 minutes, the gamble paid off, Maccarone rifling in an angled shot with the confidence of a man that had recently netted a crucial winner. At half time, Middlesbrough regrouped, facing the same challenge as in the quarter final, needing three second half goals to progress. This time, the final in Eindhoven was at stake. Again, it was Viduka who got the second, heading past the stranded Steaua goalkeeper just after the hour. Then Chris Riggott, an unsung hero of the campaign, bundled in a rebound after more brilliant work from Downing. Middlesbrough piled on pressure, and the Steaua defence, through a combination of nerves and possibly an awareness of what had happened to Basel, looked visibly rattled. They shanked clearances, failed to hold any reasonable possession and struggled to cope with four strikers after the introduction of Yakubu.

As stoppage time loomed, a terrible touch by the Steaua full back let the ball run to Downing. As the defender desperately scrambled to atone, Downing dropped a shoulder and picked out a perfect cross, over the heads of every defender, swerving and dipping perfectly for the glistening bald head of a diving Massimo Maccarone, who thundered home the sort of header worthy of winning any match. The celebrations were as incredible as the quarter final, delirium this time blended with a frenzied disbelief that it had happened again. In the television footage, you will see the perfect representation of this in the image of one Boro fan, standing on the railings, roaring in ecstasy before seemingly being overcome by emotion and melting back into the arms of the two men with him. Somehow there was still time for a last-ditch block Ugo Ehiogu block and a Steaua free kick from the edge of the box, that deflected out of play, leading to Steve Gibson frantically announcing to anybody within earshot that it was a goal kick. The final whistle brought scenes of incredible joy to Middlesbrough, a club so often in the shadow of North East rivals, and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink declared post-match that he would love Massimo Maccarone until he dies. He was speaking for an entire city.

Highlights from Middlesbrough's semi-final win over Steaua Bucharest and the infamous commentary from Ali Brownlee.

The miracles provided one last gift in the days before an exhausted Middlesbrough side succumbed to Sevilla in the final, their 64th game of the season. McLaren turned to youth for the last league game of the season. After Malcolm Christie was substituted, every Boro player on the pitch was born withing 30 miles of The Riverside and all were academy graduates. Though fans may have preoccupied with Eindhoven at the time, this remarkable feat is still referenced as a badge of honour 14 years on. The final itself was not as one sided as the 4-0 loss suggests. Middlesbrough were 1-0 down and denied a penalty after 79 minutes, before Sevilla broke away and finished them off.

In the long run, it matters not. The European campaign of a side from a small town in the north-east of England shouldn’t be remembered by Gareth Southgate desperately struggling to keep pace with a rapid Jesus Navas. Rather it should be remembered by the immortal words of the late Ali Brownlee, which I strongly advise finding on YouTube. As the final whistle went in the semi-final, the lifelong fan and commentator, summed up the feelings that those nights still evoke in every Middlesbrough fan and any outsider with a love of the miraculous:

That is it!

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, fathomed out of the foundries of Teeside, mined out of the Eston Hills, we're roaring all the way to Eindhoven and the UEFA Cup Final.

It's party, party, party! Everybody round my house for a parmo!"

Neil Tully

Football Writer

Well Done Michael, He's 13

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