Greatest Games: Gung-ho Middlesbrough prove that lightning does strike twice

Massimo Maccarone - Middlesbrough
Middlesbrough striker Massimo Maccarone seals Boro's incfedible 4-3 aggregate win over Steaua Bucharest

Continuing our 'Greatest Games' series, Mike Norman takes us back to 2006 and relives Middlesbrough's amazing comeback in the UEFA Cup semi-final when the whole nation was invited back for a parmo...

"Header. Goooaaaaallll. Massimo Maccarone with a quite brilliant diving header to break the heart of Dracula's boys."

Middlesbrough 4 Steaua Bucharest 2 (4-3 on agg)
UEFA Cup semi-final second leg
Riverside Stadium, 27 April 2006

Setting the scene

Middlesbrough even being in the 2005/06 UEFA Cup semi-final is a story in itself, and it's one that sets the scene perfectly for what transpired to be one of the greatest European comebacks of all time.

Just to qualify for Europe the Teessiders needed to survive a stoppage time penalty on the final day of the 2004/05 Premier League season. Had Mark Schwarzer not saved Robbie Fowler's spot-kick at the City of Manchester Stadium it would have been Man City, and not Middlesbrough, that entered the following season's UEFA Cup.

Schwarzer was immediately hailed as the greatest Australian hero since Ned Kelly by the Voice of the Boro and local commentator Alastair Brownlee, and as the below clip shows Ali never shied away from showing his unashamed bias towards the club he loved.

The Swiss have rolled

Fast forward to 6 April 2006, the Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough trailing 3-0 on aggregate to FC Basel with just 57 minutes remaining of their second leg quarter-final tie.

Needing four goals without reply Boro boss Steve McClaren for much of the second half effectively abandoned all defensive duties and had four strikers - Mark Viduka, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Yakubu and Massimo Maccarone - going in search of goals.

Middlesbrough got all four thanks to a 90th minute Maccarone strike in a game that could easily have made it into this Greatest Games series. "The greatest comeback since Lazarus", screamed Ali, "The Swiss have rolled", he added before correctly saying, "The greatest night the Riverside has ever, ever seen".

He didn't have to wait long for that stunning comeback to be eclipsed.

Expectation becomes mission impossible

Middlesbrough went into their UEFA Cup semi-final second leg against Romanian champions Steaua Bucharest trailing 1-0 from the away leg, and although they failed to get an away goal in the Romanian capital hopes were high that McClaren's men could turn around the one-goal deficit.

A capacity crowd of almost 35,000 flocked to the Riverside to witness the game, while the pubs in Middlebrough and neighbouring towns were packed to the rafters with the locals almost expecting Boro to make history and reach their first ever European final.

But it didn't take long for those hopes and expectations to be dashed as Steaua raced into a seemingly unassailable 3-0 aggregate lead thanks to goals by Nicolae Dica and Dorin Goian inside 24 minutes.

Boro had fought back from 0-3 down in the previous round of course, but Steaua were rated a cut above Basel and were among the favourites to win the trophy from an early stage. Surely they'd be able to see this through, or even extend their lead given that Middlesbrough captain Gareth Southgate added to his team's miserable start by limping off injured inside half an hour.

Lightning couldn't strike twice... could it?

The comeback starts with a forced change

The signs were there. Southgate going off meant McClaren once again gambled - as he had to - and introduced the match-winning hero from the previous round, striker Massimo Maccarone.

And in an incredible moment of coincidence, the bald-headed Italian picked up the ball on the edge of the box, and as he struck it right-footed across the keeper there were 57 minutes of the 90 remaining, the exact same number of minutes remaining as in the previous round when Boro scored the first of their required four goals.

Maccarone's shot found the back of the net, and the Riverside Stadium had lift off.

What followed is genuinely hard to put into words. Yakubu entered the fray in the 55th minute with Middlesbrough still needing three goals. They were effectively playing with one centre-back, a left and right-back who were bombing forward at every opportunity, two central-midfielders, two wingers, and three strikers.

McClarenBoro.jpg

McClaren's men were absolutely battering their nervy opponents. Crosses and shots were reining in from all angles as Bucharest sat deeper and deeper, and it was inevitable that the Teessiders would score again.

Viduka's powerful header in the 64th minute sent the Riverside into a frenzy, and when defender Chris Riggott bundled the ball over the line in the 73rd minute it just seemed a matter of when, and not if, Boro would get the winner and complete another remarkable European comeback.

All round my house for a parmo

But such is football and the drama and nerves that often come with it, the Boro faithful were kept on the edge of their seats until the dying minutes.

The Steaua defence were hoofing the ball up field at every opportunity, but it just kept coming back into the box, each time under a crescendo of noise.

And then, in the 90th minute, a mistake...

Bucharest tried to play the ball out of defence with some simple passes. Nothing was simple under this pressure. A straightforward 10-yard ball was miscontrolled and fell to the feet of a young Stewart Downing. The local lad took one touch and looked to cut inside, he second touch was to switch the ball back out wide, his third to knock it five yards past his opponent and run, his fourth was to deliver the cross of a lifetime to the back post...

Header. Goooaaaaallll. Massimo Maccarone with a quite brilliant diving header to break the heart of Dracula's boys.

What followed was a few minutes of backs-to-the-wall defending and some incredible tension, but Boro hung on to complete one of the most amazing comebacks - and surely the greatest back-to-back comebacks - in European history, prompting a proud Ali to invite everyone round to his house for a parmo.

The UEFA Cup final itself was a game too far for Middlesbrough, losing heavily to Sevilla in Eindhoven.

But in a season that saw 'a small town in Europe' put firmly on the map thanks to the club's heroics at the Riverside, and in a campaign that saw them record three-goal winning margins over the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United, it's the 4-2 win over Steaua Bucharest that has rightly been voted the club's greatest game in history.

Sadly, after a short battle with bowel cancer, Ali Brownlee died peacefully surrounded by his family in his Middlesbrough home on 14 February 2016. His passion, his commentaries, and his magical words following Boro's victories over Basel and Steaua, will never be forgotten.

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