Steve McLaren is many things to English football fans; ‘the Wally with a Brolly’; a half-decent coach who developed a very strange interview style whilst in charge of FC Twente; or most significantly to me and every other fan of Middlesbrough, our club’s most successful manager.
He had his critics throughout his time at the club, and opinions still vary on Teesside. The overly defensive football he had the team playing did little to remove our tag as an unfashionable club, he released our mercurial wizard, Juninho, letting him join Celtic for nowt after winning our first piece of silverware at the 2004 Carling Cup final, and he used the word ‘magnificent’ far too much in his post-match interviews. By the time he left to join the England set-up in 2006, very few of us were sad to see the back of his ginger head.
But he didn’t half give us some memorable nights.
Glorious nights, soaked in grown men’s tears, jumping so high, grabbing hold of every fu**er around you and screaming “fu**in’ hell we’ve done it!” “Massimo, you beautiful bald b***ard!”
To recall the greatest of these nights, Thursday April 27th saw the Middlesbrough going into the second leg of their UEFA Cup semi-final against Steaua Bucharest. We’d lost the first leg at Stadionul Steaua 0-1, and had only made it to the semis through an apparent act of God against Basel. This was only our second time in any European competition, and we were at the last hurdle before the final. No one could quite believe it. The ground was packed, and before kick-off, everyone in The New Holgate End lifted up coloured cards to reveal a sea of red and white that read: ‘Eindhoven 2010’. It looked magnificent. If anyone in the ground wasn’t already fired up, this was the final bit of encouragement they needed.
So the first 25 minutes felt like a kick in the teeth from a carthorse. Goals from Nicolae Dică and Dorin Goian saw Steaua build up a 0-3 aggregate lead. It now seemed like the lads were stuck at the bottom of the greasiest of greasy poles. Surely the dream was over? But it’s funny what a goal before half time and several pints can do to you. Maccarone’s first strike on 33 minutes was brilliant, fantastic build-up play with Mark Viduka playing the ball out wide, before Massimo sneaked inside and finished it like he’d already tucked away 20 that season, when in fact he’d been struggling for starts. The Italian was like a different player that night; energetic and enthusiastic, going for every ball, playing clever passes. Everything he did paid off. McLaren put him on the right wing, and whether it was desperation or tactical genius we will never know, but he was phenomenal.
Half time saw numerous flat beers consumed before everyone got talking about whether or not we could turn it around. “Of course we can”, “we f***in’ did it against Basel didn’t we?” And before we knew it, everyone was carried away making outrageous predictions of how the second half was going to pan out, throwing in their two cents worth of tactical brilliance; “bring Yakubu on, let’s get at ‘em”. I can’t remember exact conversations, but I do remember a tremendous feeling of unspoken inevitability that soon built up amongst the fans. The lads were going to go for this in the second half. F**k it, it was our destiny, we had to win this game, we were going to reach the UEFA Cup final. And that is exactly what happened.
From the moment the second half kicked off we were all over Bucharest. Everything we were trying was positive. McLaren brought on a fourth striker in Yakubu in the 55th minute; it was a ballsy move by a typically attack-shy tactician. The atmosphere was off the scale. Everyone in a Boro shirt that night seemed like they genuinely cared about the result. Even the soon-to-be Geordie mercenary Mark Viduka was all over the place, throwing himself into a risky header to make it 2-2 on the night (2-3 on aggregate) in the 64th minute.
Chris Riggott’s scrappy bundle over the line on 72 minutes put the Riverside crowd into overdrive. We were level on aggregate. We only needed one more goal, and we had twenty minutes to find it in. What followed was an absolute onslaught. Steaua couldn’t get out of their half. They were under the cosh and running out of ideas. Downing and Maccarone were whipping in perfect balls from all over the place. But this goal just didn’t seem to be coming.
But right at the death something amazing happened, just when everyone was starting to think it might not happen for us, a moment in time that I will never forget occurred. Boro were battering Steaua, and while trying to clear the ball, one of their defenders cocked up, allowing Downing to pick it up, skin the full back and have another dig. Everyone was urging him to whip it in. We were entering the 90th minute for God’s sake.
What happened next was just outstanding. Downing played the most wonderful, textbook ball into the six-yard box, just between the Bucharest defenders and keeper, and at the back post, Massimo Maccarone was in full horizontal flight. His head met the ball and the back of the net bulged. There was this beautiful moment, between the ball leaving Downing’s foot and landing in the back of the net, where everyone in the Riverside paused for a split second and held their breath before we all hit the f***ing roof.
Massimo danced off towards the North Stand, the players went bananas, I battered me shins to bits on the seats in front and I didn’t care, and a fella in front who I swear arrived in a wheelchair leapt up and down like a mad man. Massimo Maccarone performed miracles that night. He’s the greatest man that ever lived. Every person in the ground is joined in this great and poignant moment for Middlesbrough Football Club and it is beautiful.
I watch the highlights from the game every so often, and every single time my hairs stand on end and I find myself close to tears. The sheer desire in Maccarone’s leap, the hunger that made him reach that ball, the fact that he would have missed that chance on any other occasion, makes me wish we’d kept the useless b***ard. But for that goal alone, he will always be a hero to me.
There’s a wonderful part on the local commentary from Alistair Brownlee and Bernie Slaven, where Brownlee drops his microphone after Maccarone scores and the only sound for a few seconds is the crowd going insane and the microphone being dragged around the floor (I would recommend that anybody watch the highlights accompanied by the local commentary, bloomin' marvellous). The raw passion and ecstasy was pouring from everyone. It was beyond pleasure; it was a simple, primitive expression of pure, unadulterated joy shared between 35,000 people. 35,000 best mates. The words “Geordies at home, watching The Bill” rang around the stadium, yes we were “just a small town in Europe”, but we had reached the Promised Land. We were floating on thin air, and we were all basking in it. I have never experienced anything like it in my life, and I know that I never will again.
The fact that I shared that moment in time with my Dad, who had been taking me to the Boro since I was a bairn was really great. We had witnessed something truly remarkable and special, not just for our team, but for English football. The party atmosphere that filled the whole town all night was class. I met up with a load of mates from college after the match and we were all just buzzing, even the lads who didn’t support the Boro were up for it. I must have drunk a thousand pints in The Empire that night, and at closing time everyone in the club filled the dance floor and chanted Pig Bag with their arms around each other for at least ten minutes. It was a great feeling and its times like that which I will remember forever.
Despite the cloud of obscurity that Massimo Maccarone left the club under a year later, I really hope the Italian aware of everything he brought the people of Middlesbrough that night; the best moment of our lives. We might have got tortured in the final, but it didn’t matter, we had a great time in the UEFA Cup. I only hope that the Boro get back their once again, it might not happen for a while, but for now I am just grateful that I was one of the people inside the Riverside that Thursday night.
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