Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Carling Cup Final 2004 Memories

On the occasion of the "2nd" anniversary of that wonderful day in Cardiff (it was 29th February 2004), I thought I'd share an extract from my book "You Are My Boro: The Unlikely Adventures of a Small Town in Europe".

From Chapter 11 - 2003/4 - We DID Overcome.


And so it was upon us: The League Cup, or, to give it its sponsor’s name, the Carling Cup Final. Could it happen this time? Could 128 years of hurt finally come to an end? The portents were good, not least in the fact that we would be playing at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff rather than Wembley, which was still undergoing complete and very expensive reconstruction. There was also the date of the game: the leap year extra day of 29th February. It was a rare date, and maybe something rare would happen.

I managed to get myself a ticket, having made the prudent decision to buy a season ticket halfway through the season and thus improve my chances if we’d got there. There was a decent allocation for real fans at League Cup finals in Cardiff. I think both sets of fans were allocated nearly 30,000 tickets, so a good number got to go to the match. I’m sure there were those who were unlucky or who just couldn’t make it at all, and I believe Bolton had some problems with their allocations. Such is life with cup finals. They are logistical challenges given the short time scales that are often at play; there’s no doubt of that.

In the weeks leading up to the game I had been asked if I wanted to go to a BBC Radio 5 Live fans’ forum being held on a midweek night at a pub in Bolton, so I joined about a dozen other people who ran, contributed to or posted on FMTTM’s messageboard, including the likes of Rob Nichols and the legend they call Uncle Harry. We made our way over the Pennines with a “pies and peace” offering of some local pork products and found the venue. It was a large, modern pub with a cavernous open area. A group of tables was set up at one end of the room where the presenter, Jonathan Pearce, took up his central hosting position between Mark Lawrenson, Craig Hignett, Stan Collymore and Bolton legend, John McGinlay. In front of them were several rows of chairs seating Bolton fans. The small Boro contingent was ushered upstairs to a mezzanine area overlooking the main floor.

The show was lively and the banter was good-spirited. There was a roving reporter called Clem (himself a Teessider) who mingled with the fans when prompted, asking various questions and wandering around with the obligatory large microphone and headphones worn on one ear. During one such walkabout, Clem came towards me and thrust the microphone under my mouth, asking who I most feared from Bolton. My first, instinctive answer of “Peter Kay” raised a laugh in the crowd, although Mr. Pearce didn’t look too impressed down on the main floor, but I soon gave a real answer and named Kevin Davies as someone who would definitely cause us problems in the game. He had been a thorn in our sides before, and I knew he was the kind of player defenders hate to face: a big, bustling nuisance who doesn’t know the meaning of a lost cause.

After the show we found out that the actual League Cup trophy was there (it could have been a replica, of course, but it looked real enough) and a few of us had our photos taken gurning over the trophy with thumbs aloft and so on. Craig Hignett, ex-member of the dynamic strike duo of 1995-96 named the Midget Gems (partnered by Nick Barmby), came and chatted with us for a while and posed for more photos. A few drinks were imbibed and it was soon time to head back to the North East.

For the match itself, I decided to head down the night before the match and stay in a Travelodge just off the M4. This meant I could get into Cardiff nice and early without worrying about driving a long way twice in a day, especially as the weather had turned wintry. I gave another couple of Boro fans a lift down as well, and they stayed at the same hotel. Next morning we ate a hearty breakfast in the Little Chef next door and headed into Welsh Wales. I had never been to Wales in my entire life, and hoped I wouldn’t be accosted by enormous unintelligible signs emblazoned with thirty-letter place names (made up of the letters H, L and U, mostly). It wasn’t like that at all, of course, and it didn’t take long to cross the Severn and get to Cardiff.

We were directed to car parks on the outskirts of the Welsh capital city, from where we could catch buses to the city centre. It was all fairly well organised and we got into the heart of the city with a good few hours to spare, and found that it was already buzzing with football fans. The strange thing was that it seemed to be all Boro. There were very few Bolton fans to be found, and all the pubs were awash with the reds and whites of Middlesbrough. There was a convivial and excited party atmosphere all around.

I headed to the Cardiff branch of the British Legion where a few people I knew where going to be meeting up for a few drinks. When I got there I found that they had a German beer called Bitburger which I hadn’t tasted since I was a young slip of a lad back in the late 1980s. My excitement abated a tad when I found out that it was an alcohol-free version, but I still drank it. I was high enough on expectation as it was, and had to drive home after the game anyway.

Everyone was itching to get to the match, and there was an amazing feeling of optimism amongst the Boro fans. It was more optimistic than the feeling I’d witnessed back in 1997. It wasn’t just optimism, actually, it was belief. This was our time, and I don’t think we’d ever felt so sure of it. As kick-off time approached people finished their drinks, exchanged handshakes, hugs and back-pats and headed towards the venue for the cup final.

The Millennium stadium is an impressive venue, with high, white steel columns in each corner and polished black cladding around the top of the stands. On the day of our final it had Carling Cup banners draped from various structures. I made my way into the ground and up to my seat, which was high up at the back of one of the end stands. The retractable roof was closed for the match, and from the roof hung two huge banners bearing the club crests of Bolton and Boro. The centre circle was covered with a huge circle of cloth bearing the name of the sponsors. The stands were soon full of hopeful fans, decked out in their red and white shirts, hats and scarves and waving their flags. The atmosphere was crackling with expectancy and nails were bitten as news of the team selections came through. Hopes and dreams by the thousand were ready to pour out onto the pitch when the teams appeared.

The teams emerged a few minutes before kick-off to a background of vivid, moving colour and colossal noise. Fireworks erupted from the pitch and flash-bulbs by the thousand lit up the stands. The two teams lined up along the pitch, one on each side of the half-way line and did all the pre-match presentation stuff they like to torture us all with. Get on with it, will ya?

When it did start, it started better than anyone could have dared to imagine. In only the second minute Danny Mills knocked a long ball forward from right back. It was headed back into midfield where Mendieta suddenly had acres of space. He curled a gorgeous ball out to Zenden on the left wing, and Zenden whipped a wicked low cross into the six-yard box where Job slammed it home to give Boro the lead.

If that was good, better was to follow. French World Cup winner Djorkaeff had a chance for Bolton, saved well by Schwarzer to his right, and from the resulting corner Boro won a free kick for Bolton naughtiness in the area. A bit of head tennis ensued before Mendieta slid the ball in towards Job who was lurking in the area with his back to goal. As he tried to take the ball to one side, he was floored by a clumsy tackle from behind and referee Mr. Riley pointed to the spot. Oh. My. God. We had a penalty.

Zenden took the responsibility on his shoulders and stepped up to take the penalty kick. As he kicked his standing foot slipped and he did actually strike the ball twice, but the contacts were so close together it was only visible on a slow-mo replay, and the ball ended up in the net. Only six minutes had passed, and the Boro fans could barely contain themselves. I found myself hugging the bloke next to me, who I’d never seen before and have never seen since. I would have apologised, but he was hugging back with great enthusiasm.

On 21 minutes Bolton woke from their stunned stupor and hit back. It was a goal out of nothing by Kevin Bloody Davies (didn’t I warn them?) with a weak, long-range shot from wide on the right. Schwarzer made a bit of a boo-boo of it, misjudging the bounce and letting the ball in at his near post. He was visibly annoyed by the mistake, kicking the goalpost in frustration.  Of course Bolton came at us hard after that. They launched a series of attacks in their usual, Big-Sam-drilled way, but we stood firm. Schwarzer was a man possessed, making a series of great saves to quell the white-shirted hordes, and we made it to half time with the lead intact.

The second half wasn’t half as hairy for Boro as it could have been. Bolton soon ran out of steam. They kept pressing for the equaliser, but Boro kept breaking quickly, and could well have scored a couple of goals up at the end of the ground where our nervous fans were seated. Mendieta had a couple of good chances and Juninho made a couple of trademark mazy runs, but the third goal wouldn’t come. Ricketts came on for a bumbling cameo and our nerves were shot. Regulation time ran out and Bolton had four minutes of injury time to try and draw level. They threw everything forward, and there was a horrible, heart-in-the-mouth moment when Ehiogu’s arm was struck by a goal-bound shot as he lunged across to block it from almost point-blank range. Mike Riley waved play on and we were so, so close to Paradise. The strains of “We Shall Overcome”, that protest song of the civil rights movement adopted as an anthem of valiant defeat by Boro fans in the past, wasn’t going to get an airing today. Please God, I can’t say I really believe in you, but please: not today.

The roar at the final whistle was like nothing I’ve heard before or since. The release was immeasurable. Finally, finally, Middlesbrough had won a real trophy. Mickey Mouse trophy my arse. I stood with arms aloft and screamed until my lungs burned and my head span, then had to sit down to get my breath back. It was then that I wept like a big bloody baby, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’d not been a Boro fan for very long compared to many of those around me, but at that moment I felt 100% Teessider.

I’d seen cup final defeats and relegations, and this was sweeter and more real than anything I’d ever felt as a football fan, even in my foolish and misguided younger years. I can’t imagine a Manchester United or Chelsea fan knowing how this moment feels. They win trophies all the time, so they get used to it. Hard times for them are going a season without winning a pot, whilst the majority of clubs just want to survive and go on the odd cup run, hoping to get a few crumbs thrown their way now and again by Sky Television.

The celebrations were long, lusty and loud. Long after the Bolton fans had vacated their half of the stadium to trudge home feeling hard done by (been there, done that), the stadium rocked to the Boro rhythm. The players partied on the pitch as much the fans did in the stands, with a beaming Juninho laying the ghosts of Elland Road to rest. You could see it meant a lot to him. I rang my parents on my mobile, giving them a replay of my full-time roar, but with all the noise around me, I wasn’t sure who I was actually speaking to. It could well have been the answering machine.

The spectacular trophy presentation ceremony saw Gareth Southgate lift that glittering piece of silverware high above his head as fireworks shot towards the dark voids of the roof. Steve Gibson, the lad who came from the tough, working-class Middlesbrough estate of Park End to become one of the most popular chairmen in the modern game, was persuaded to come up to the podium and was lifted shoulder-high by the players. As for Steve McClaren, he hadn’t been universally popular with fans of the club, but he had done the one thing no other manager had managed before: won a cup.

 It was all just flipping fantastic, and I am so glad and I feel so privileged that I was there to see history being made. 

Full book available at Amazon.co.uk

5 comments:

Amadeus Finlay said...

I admire a man who can not only write as well as yourself, but also one who openly admits to being a Boro fan! Nice one.

littlejimmy said...

Ha. Thanks. I think...

Amadeus Finlay said...

Not that I can say much, being a Liverpool fan and a man who finds solace in wearing a selection of oddly-chosen hats...

littlejimmy said...

As a naturalised Yorkshireman, I think flat caps are marvelous.

Amadeus Finlay said...

Flat caps, drizzle, and sheep; beautiful Ireland and beautiful Yorkshire. Brings a tear to the eye.