As we approach another leap year League Cup final on Sunday between Liverpool and Manchester City, we journey back to a magical, history-making day for Boro FC 12 years ago.
Bolton 1 Middlesbrough 2
Legue Cup final
Sunday, February 29
Embed from Getty Images
Middlesbrough’s journey to the Millenium Stadium had been far from straightforward. Entering the competition in the second round they squeezed past Brighton by a solitary goal in extra-time in front of 10,423 supporters at the Riverside. A third-round victory at Wigan set up a November 2003 clash with Everton. Once again, Boro slugged it out over 120 minutes, this time without a breakthrough. Penalties would decide matters.
Middlesbrough kept their nerve to win the shootout five-four to progress to a December date in London, away at Tottenham. Spurs took an early lead through Darren Anderton before, with just four minutes remaining, Michael Ricketts’s equaliser sent the tie into another 30 minutes. Once again, the men from the Tees rode their luck and held their nerve to win another spot-kick duel five-four. Steve McClaren’s side had reached the two-legged semi-finals where they would face Arsenal.
A superb defensive performance, capped with a little magic from the Brazilian legend Juninho, saw Boro leave Highbury with a narrow advantage. Over 29,000 expectant supporters were left in ecstasy as Boudewijn Zenden doubled their lead on aggregate on 69 minutes. Edu quickly halved the deficit, ensuring a nervy finale. But with moments to go, a Jose Antonio Reyes own goal sent the men in red to the final amid wild celebrations.
By comparison, Bolton’s road the final was straightforward enough, dispatching Walsall and Gillingham at the Reebok. Liverpool at Anfield would prove to be a much tougher proposition. A frenetic, pulsating game saw Bolton take an early lead through Mario Jardel. Danny Murphy levelled the tie before the incomparable Jay-Jay Okocha edged the Trotters in front only for Vladimir Smicer to restore parity with two minutes to play. Surely extra-time beckoned? Youri Djorkaeff’s last-minute penalty begged to differ.
It did take extra-time for Bolton to see off a plucky Southampton side, Henrik Pedersen’s 115th minute strike enough to make the semi-final. And Bolton’s first-leg demolition of fellow Premier League side, Aston Villa, was a masterclass of attacking football. A five-two first-leg victory left Villa with too much to do at Villa Park. And despite a two-nil reverse, Bolton booked their final place.
The stage was set. Over 72,000 fans descended on the Welsh capital for the final. Boro, having lost two previous League Cup finals, were the narrow underdogs. A fast start would be essential. An early break from Joseph-Desire Job set up a tap-in for Zenden to settle the Teesmen down. And it got even better for them as the rampaging Job was felled by Emerson Thome for a penalty.
Zenden stepped up to double Boro’s advantage with only seven minutes on the clock. Surely that first major trophy would be a formality? Far from it, as Bolton piled forward and they were back in the hunt after a goalkeeping howler from Mark Schwarzer allowed the most improbable Kevin Davies shot to squirm into the net. All this in 21 heart-stopping minutes.
Bolton laid siege to Boro’s goal and Schwarzer atoned for his mistake with two super saves before half-time. By contrast, the second half didn’t live up the excitement of the first. Juninho might have finished matters late on as Wanderers search for parity reached desperation, but it didn’t matter.
After 134 years Middlesbrough had made history, winning their first major trophy and qualifying for Europe. Juninho’s joy lingers long in the memory as Boro stepped out of the shadows and into the limelight.
Read more by Neil Evans here!