Middlesbrough FC in the UEFA cup?! We could hardly believe it, yet here we were. Since winning the Carling cup in the February of 2004 we had been in dreamland. However, we’d been thrown in at the deep end in the group stage after knocking Banik Ostrava of the Czech Republic out in the first round. It was getting intense. Only 3 teams from our group of 5 would qualify, and with Villarreal (an up and coming strong side from Spain), Italian giants Lazio, Partizan Belgrade (one of the original crack European sides) of Serbia as well as Greek minnows Egaleo, we knew it was going to be tough. After defeating Lazio 2-0 in an epic home match and disposing of Egaleo 1-0 away, I was fulfilling the personal dream of watching my beloved Boro in Europe for the first time against Villarreal.
There were 3 of us flying fromThree of us flying from Birmingham to Alicante (my friends Scott and Paul as well as myself). W planned to stay in Benidorm for two nights and make a little holiday out of it, and then hire a car and drive the two hours up for the game after. The weather was still nice and warm despite it being late November, and we could still comfortably walk around in our t-shirts. The night we arrived, we had a nice paella dish on the seafront, before going back to the hotel and getting ready for to go out for a few drinks. Walking through Benidorm’s town, we came across a place charging just one Euro for a pint of Amstel! There was a comedian on in Cafe de Benidorm, and after a bit of a laugh we hit some of the clubs, many of which were enticing people with free shots. In the early hours we grabbed some food, bumping into a few fellow Boro fans in the process, before retiring to bed for some more than welcome sleep after such a long day. We’d had a good night and each of us was really looking forward to the game!
The following day we headed to the seafront for a few games of pool at the Harley-Davidson bar and grabbed a bite to eat before heading up for the mid-evening football match. Villarreal isn’t far from Valencia, located near to Castellon. We arrived in good time giving us plenty of time to get parked. The square near the ground was buzzing with fellow Boro fans and we joined in with the building atmosphere! The air was filled with tension and excitement. It was surprisingly emotional surveying the scene unfolding around me; it was something I’d dreamed of seeing for many years – basking under foreign sun, celebrating my team whilst surrounded by a sea of red Boro fans! This was it, the moment we had all been waiting for. We were about to watch Middlesbrough FC play in Europe! The locals seemed somewhat puzzled as they watched the fountains become filled with washing up liquid… We arrived at our gate early, wearing the sombreros we’d brought especially for the match. Good job, as not long after, it was mayhem outside. Everyone we being penned in by barriers and a crush was developing. Although I wasn’t in the midst of it all, I still ended tumbling over the top of a barrier along with a woman. Luckily nobody was injured. It was a little frustrating too, especially seeing as there appeared no real reason for the hold up. After dusting myself off we made it through the turnstile. A full body search delayed us still further causing us to miss the start of the game! There was no methodical seating numbering, and it was all so unorganised. The viewing was bad too. This game was beginning to feel like a free-for-all and eventually as more and more fans flooded in it was clear to see that there were far too many fans in the area for the number of seats available! Fortunately, the stewards saw sense and opened up a large steel gate divide, allowing us to spread into another area behind the goal. Bravo, much better!
The Boro fans weren’t impressed that Steve McClaren had chosen to leave out our most potent attacking forces, Hasselbaink and Viduka, and instead played Job and Nemeth. Parlour was rested for Doriva too, which worried us a little, but we started off okay. Villarreal midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme was working his magic though, and the opposition broke through before half time when Riquelme fed Guayre a nice ball, which was smoothly slotted home. El Madrigal erupted with Spanish cheer as the home side celebrated. After half time changes were made and as we pushed for an equaliser we had Riggott’s ‘goal’ disallowed. With just 15 vital minutes of play left, Villarreal killed the game off. Again Riquelme was on fire, owning the pitch as he played a 1-2 with Javi Venta, who scored another neat goal. Well that was that. A disappointing end to the game, and as the Spaniards cheered, we were left feeling deflated. Reflecting on our journey, it was a great experience, and at least we were beaten by a respectable and extremely skilled side who deserved their victory.
We headed down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast the next morning before heading to the airport. We were pretty pushed for time and knew we didn’t have long to eat. However, upon reaching the dining room, we found that they’d stopped serving. Although a little puzzled at first, we quickly realised that we were mistakenly still on English time and not Spanish time which is +1 hour! No wonder we were caught in the rush at the match the previous day. Suddenly overcome with panic that we would miss our flight, we raced up to our room like something from a Benny Hill sketch to grab our bags. As we went through the door Paul slipped and fell flat on his face, really hurting his hip! We had no time to waste though, so just raced, and in Paul’s case limped, our suitcases out to the car. We caught the plane by the skin of our teeth! Boro went on to convincingly beat Partizan Belgrade 3-0 in the remaining group fixture and as a result ended up top of our group. We were really pleased as were in such a tough group! We finally bowed out of the competition in the final 16, to Sporting Lisbon who went on to become losing finalists. In my opinion it was a dignified effort, especially as it was our first European experience, and we returned home with our heads held high. Little were we to know that the best was still to come the next season!
By Ben Charlton