‘We’re just a small town in Europe; we’re just a small town in Europe’
Did Boro fans ever think these words would echo around a 30,000+ capacity all seater stadium? Did Boro fans from generations past think they would witness the club lift a major domestic trophy? Did Boro fans ever think the European adventure would end with a defeat in the final?
Valid questions that many Boro fans were probably never seeking the answer to, until February 29th 2004 (had to be a leap year for Typical Boro) and the moment captain Gareth Southgate lifted the League Cup above his head. A moment many Boro fans will remember for the rest of their lives. For fans inside the stadium, the outpouring of emotion at the end of the game was as much relief as it was unbridled joy.
Winning a trophy meant qualification for Europe: another first in the club’s history. Before the excitement of being in the pot for the opening round could sink in, Steve McClaren and the club had to improve the playing squad. Even though the club were victorious in the Carling Cup victory the league campaign ended with an 11th place finish. Similar problems from the late 1990s and early 2000s reared their ugly heads yet again: a loss of form in the second half of the season and not enough quality and depth to the squad.
As ever, the manager would be supported by the Chairman with funds to spend. Despite the fact quality arrived that summer, it did not follow in the pattern of excess that characterised McClaren’s first two years. Incidentally, the 2003-04 season did not feature a single transfer fee paid by Boro, instead relying on free transfers and loan signings. The only fee Boro paid in the summer of 2004 was for the acquisition of Aussie striker Mark Viduka from Leeds for £4.5m.
Although Boro’s only registered transfer fee was to sign Viduka, the nature of recruiting players on a free transfer means a large signing on bonus is customary. The fact that the players brought in were Bolo Zenden, Ray Parlour, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Michael Reiziger and Gazika Mendieta, it is sensible to assume both the signing on bonus and weekly wages were sizeable.
From the list above, it is also clear to see that older players with European experience featured high on McClaren’s list of transfer objectives. Earlier transfers had focused on younger players, often unproven, for decent fees, but they never really paid off: Massimo Maccarone, Michael Ricketts, Malcolm Christie and Mark Wilson were chief offenders.
A shift to seasoned professionals had an impact on and off the field, supporting the development of the latest batch of youngsters to emerge from the Boro academy. The likes of Stewart Downing, Stuart Parnaby, James Morrison and Tony McMahon benefitted greatly from having veterans at the club. The very nature of a long season meant that these youngsters would be called upon frequently and playing time alongside experienced pros was vital to their long term development.
McClaren hoped the capture of Mark Viduka would be the main catalyst for improvement in the league. Many fans believed he would be the next great Boro striker. His track record at Celtic and Leeds meant it was Boro’s first dalliance with a proven goal scorer since Fabrizio Ravanelli. The fact that Boro captured Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, from Chelsea, to partner Viduka only served to increase the optimism around the club.
The manager, and the fans, were incredibly hopeful that this would be the season Boro surpassed their highest ever finish in the Premier League (9th) and achieved success in Europe. The whole team was riding high after the Carling Cup triumph, and genuinely believed they could mount a serious challenge for Champions League qualification. Comments from both Viduka and Hasselbaink did nothing to dispel the ambition, and with the UEFA Cup campaign set to get underway in mid-September, the league fixtures couldn’t start soon enough.
A bright start to the league fixtures resulted in Boro winning three of their opening five games with both Hasselbaink and Viduka finding the net three times. The two accomplished attackers are what Boro needed for a number of years, and here it was in the flesh, living up the pre-season hype. After a Viduka inspired performance dispatched Birmingham at the Riverside, thoughts turned to the first European tie in the club’s history.
The footballing authorities had not yet rebranded the UEFA Cup into the Europa League at this point, but there were still a myriad of qualifying rounds before the main event. These rounds eventually included teams dropping out of the Champions League and into the first found. After completing this array of matches, the group stage began. Although created to ape the Champions League format, the UEFA Cup group stage included five teams instead of four. Each club would play each other once (home or away) followed by four knockout rounds and a final.
Boro entered the draw as a seeded team, alongside FA Cup runners up Millwall, who had lost to Manchester United in the other domestic cup final. This was a huge boost, as it meant there was a strong chance of qualification for the group stages. There were some big names in the tournament, including top seeded Lazio, Parma, eventual finalists Sporting Lisbon, Schalke, Feyenoord and Sevilla to name a few. Obviously, fans wanted the biggest names at the Riverside, but drawing these in the group stages was what the club wanted.
As it turned out, Boro were drawn against Banik Ostrava of the Czech Republic. They were mired in financial problems in the 90s, but had since recovered and won the Czech league title as Boro lifted the League Cup. As a league winner, they were entered into the third qualifying round of the Champions League. Qualification for the group stage in UEFA’s premier competition would have provided financial security and some prestige for the club that produced Milan Baros.
However, it wasn’t to be, their opponents Bayer Leverkusen were simply too much to handle. In the first leg the Germans ran out 4-0 winners. The second leg was a different story, with Banik emerging victorious. Incidentally, Leverkusen would go on to have a stellar performance in the group stage, finishing above Real Madrid, albeit with the same number of points, before being unceremoniously knocked out by eventual champions Liverpool.
As the Czech champions arrived at the Riverside, a packed home crowd eagerly awaiting their club’s first European outing. McClaren fielded a strong side, knowing that whatever the relative strengths of the Czech league were, Banik were here to compete and Boro had to take them seriously. The manager called upon his in-form strikers to lead the line, ably supported by an attacking midfield that included Bolo Zenden and Szilard Nemeth. Ray Parlour and George Boateng provided the drive from central midfield in the hope they would overpower their counterparts.
Put simply, Boro had far too much quality for their opponents. The tie was settled by the end of the first leg. A brace from Viduka, after Hasselbaink opened the scoring, was enough to secure a 3-0 victory. In fairness, Banik threatened in the early stages of the match, without putting Mark Schwarzer’s goal under too much pressure.
The second leg ended up a mere formality. McClaren was forced to make changes to a side blighted by injuries. This makeshift side gave a debut to James Morrison, who went on to score the equaliser, and featured a number of youngsters on the bench. Luckily, Franck Queudrue’s sending off ended up having no bearing on the result. After the game, McClaren hailed his side’s performance and Boro through to the group stage.
As is customary in European competition, teams are placed in pots for the draw as indicated by their UEFA coefficient. Boro found themselves in pot 3, which meant there would be two really strong teams in their group, based on past performance. In this form of the UEFA Cup, it would be the top 3 teams that would qualify for the next round, so Boro had every chance.
The next part of the journey featured a famous home victory against one of Italy’s most famous sides.