The miracle of Middlesbrough: When McClaren’s comeback kings overcame Steaua

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As Steaua Bucharest travel to London aiming to dump Chelsea out of the Europa League, Mark Gilbey recalls the last time the Romanians faced an English side in the knock-out stages of a European competition…

You have to listen carefully, but there's a brief moment after Massimo Maccarone’s last-minute winner for Middlesbrough against Steaua Bucharest in the Uefa Cup semi-final six years ago – and it really is just a couple of seconds – when the only sound on BBC Tees was the Riverside’s roar.

In the excitement of it all, of the Italian’s bald head meeting a Stewart Downing cross, commentator and long-time Boro supporter Ali Brownlee dropped his microphone in the press box. You can hear him scrambling around trying to pick it up before the silence is broken by something about “driving a stake through the heart of Dracula’s boys”.

Some may scoff, but it is a wonderful piece of radio that captures the raw emotion of being a football fan.

The self-styled “small town in Europe” were the continent’s comeback kings that season. Steve McClaren’s side had qualified for the Uefa Cup after finishing seventh in the Premier League, but the 2005/06 campaign was ultimately a disappointing one.

Despite beating Chelsea and Manchester United, Boro were hammered 7-0 by Arsenal and ended the Premier League campaign in a disappointing 14th place. They did, however, enjoy cup runs both at home and in Europe. After navigating their way through the Uefa Cup group stages, plus ties against Stuttgart and Roma, Boro earned themselves a quarterfinal against Basel.

Christian Gross’ team seemed in control at the halfway stage of the tie. After all, they had won the first leg 2-0 in Switzerland and after 23 minutes at the Riverside their Brazilian striker Eduardo made it 3-0 on aggregate.

But then something extraordinary happened. Mark Viduka struck either side of half-time and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink added a third in the 79th minute. The momentum was with Boro.

Basel’s Daniel Majstorović needlessly got himself sent off, but they still needed another goal. Time was running out but with seconds remaining Pascal Zuberbühler parried Fábio Rochemback’s shot and on hand was Maccarone – their £8.15m misfit striker who had been back to Italy for loan spells with Parma and Siena – to pounce and setup a semi-final against Steaua. “They will come to see this as Middlesbrough's Istanbul moment,” announced the Guardian.

Their Romanian opponents, champions of Europe 20 years earlier, overcame city rivals Rapid Bucharest in the previous round. Some 1,700 fans made their way east for the first leg that was Middlesbrough’s 56th match of the season, and fourth in eight days. It is little wonder this young team - missing 35-year-old captain Gareth Southgate, Mark Viduka and Chris Riggott - looked jaded. Cosmin Olăroiu’s side won the first leg 1-0 when Nicolae Dică held off George Boateng, before swivelling and firing past Mark Schwarzer. But for the Australian, it could have been far worse.

The victory came at a cost for Steaua though, who would be without the suspended Sorin Paraschiv and Bănel Nicoliță in the second leg.

Although Steaua would be without the suspended Sorin Paraschiv and Bănel Nicoliță for the second leg, they did have the luxury of resting half the team for a 3-0 victory over Farul ConstanÅ£a.

By comparison, McClaren’s preparations had hardly been perfect. Boro had suffered the disappointment of being beaten 1-0 by West Ham United in an FA Cup semi-final, but welcomed back Southgate, Riggott and Viduka to their 3-1-4-2 formation.

Before kick-off the atmosphere inside the ground had been electric. Fans held aloft red and white cards spelling out “Eindhoven”, the venue for the final, and there was a rousing rendition of “You are my Boro” that had the Riverside buzzing. Interest in Romania had been huge. The acclaimed Teatrul de Comedie even cancelled its performance of William Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona that evening.

McClaren instructed his team to keep it tight early on – he didn’t want another repeat of Basel – but inside 25 minutes Boro found themselves two goals down on the night and heading for defeat.

First, Petre Marin cut inside and unleashed a shot from 22 yards that Brad Jones – standing in for Schwarzer, who had broken his cheekbone against West Ham – could only parry, allowing Dică to open the scoring on 16 minutes. Steaua soon had a second. Dorin Goian’s header from a corner was blocked, but the defender smashed the ball in at the second opportunity.

Boro needed four. What’s more, Southgate injured his knee and had to be replaced by Maccarone. Resigned to defeat, some supporters left the ground.

With nothing to lose, McClaren abandoned the five-man midfield. The fight back began in the 33rd minute when Viduka found Maccarone out wide on the right and the Italian fired a shot across Carlos Fernandes into the far corner. “Three more, we only need three more,” sang the Riverside. Surely not? Surely even they didn’t believe it? Not again?

Fernandes kept Boro at bay until half-time, but the pressure continued after the interval as McClaren introduced a fourth striker, Ayegbeni Yakubu, in place of Andrew Taylor.

It took 19 minutes for Boro to add a second. Downing, whose return after five months out with a knee injury injected fresh impetus into Boro, delivered a cross from deep that Viduka met with a thumping header to level on the night, but they still required another two.

Downing also had a hand in the third. A throw-in caused panic and Steaua could only clear as far as the winger who fired a low cross-cum-shot that Fernandes couldn’t hold, allowing Riggott to slide in from close range on 73 minutes.

“I turned to the lads on the bench and said: ‘this is ours now',” McClaren later reflected in the Northern Echo. “We still had plenty of time left, but after 10 or so minutes had passed, I think everyone was getting twitchy.”

Less than 60 seconds remained when Downing whipped in another teasing cross; Steaua cleared and, although Middlesbrough won the second ball, the Romanians got it back.

Daniel Bălan received a pass about 25 yards out and then, of all moments, he miscontrolled and it went straight to Downing. He turned Bălan inside out and swung over another ball that found the head of a diving Maccarone to clinch a remarkable victory at the death.

The Riverside erupted. “Que sera sera, whatever will be will be, we're going to PSV, que sera sera,” sang the fans at the final whistle. It was one of the greatest nights in Boro’s history.

“I said that lightning couldn't strike twice in the same place but it has done,” declared McClaren. “Now let's go one step further and win the final.”

It would have been a perfect send-off for him in his last game - by then it had become known that after five years McClaren would be leaving to take the England job.

Alas, it was a step too far. Over 12,000 fans travelled to Eindhoven for the final against Sevilla, but goals from Luis Fabiano, Enzo Maresca (two) and Frédéric Kanouté handed Juande Ramos’ side a 4-0 win. It was a sad farewell for McClaren but regardless of the result, his small town in Europe had made a big impression on the continent.

Middlesbrough 4-2 Steaua Bucharest (agg 4-3)
Uefa Cup semi-final, second leg (27 April 2006).

Middlesbrough Brad Jones; Chris Riggott, Gareth Southgate (Massimo Maccarone 26’), Franck Queudrue; Stuart Parnaby, Fábio Rochemback, George Boateng, Stewart Downing, Andrew Taylor (Ayegbeni Yakubu 55’); Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (Ugo Ehiogu 90’), Mark Viduka. Unused substitutes: David Knight, Matthew Bates, Lee Cattermole, Ray Parlour.
Goals: Massimo Maccarone 33’, 89’; Mark Viduka 64’; Chris Riggott 73’.
Steaua Bucharest Carlos Fernandes; George Ogăraru, Sorin Ghionea, Dorin Goian, Petre Marin; Daniel Oprita (Eugen Baciu 81’), Mirel Rădoi, Florin Lovin, Gabriel Boştină (Mihai Neşu 86’); Nicolae Dică, Victoraş Iacob (Daniel Bălan 65’). Unused substitutes: Cornel Cernea, Valentin Simion, Vasilică Cristocea, Andrei Cristea.
Goals: Nicolae Dică 16’; Dorin Goian 24’.