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Our UEFA Cup Adventures – Trip 2: Stuttgart

After the Boro disappointingly bowed out of the 2004/5 UEFA cup after reaching the final 16, we were hoping our refined league form would propel us back into next season’s competition.

As key players returned towards the end of the season, our game was fairly consistent and a place in the top 7, which would secure us a spot in the UEFA Cup was looking promising. However, a big late season charge from Manchester City threatened our chances of finishing in the all important seventh place in the league. Interestingly, as fate would have it, we were drawn to play Manchester City away on the last day of the season. After a edgy win over Spurs in Middlesbrough’s final home game of the season (Spurs were until that point still challenging us themselves) the showdown against City would become a famed moment in footballing history. Even a draw would be enough to boost us into that all-important place, but in losing we would forfeit our qualifying place to City.

The Main Square in Stuttgart

The first half went almost too perfectly. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s pile-driving thirty yard free kick skimmed the underside of the crossbar, perfectly angling the ball into the back of the net. Our 1-0 break released the Boro’s tension and instilled a new flood of excitement and anticipation through the fans.

However, our feelings were soon extinguished, as City equalised immediately after the break through Kiki Musampa, and it was then set up for a tense finale! As City stepped up the game in injury time, the referee awarded them a soft penalty and the pressure was on Robbie Fowler to stand forward and fire City into Europe.  However, the outstanding Mark Schwarzer was on form, and his sharp reflexes quickly calculated which direction the ball was headed, resulting in a superb save. “GET IN YER BIG AUSSIE!!!” was the classic cry from the radio commentary – a reaction echoed by Boro fans everywhere! The rest was history, as they say, and Boro would embark on that glorious journey towards the UEFA cup!

The first round of the competition kicked off against Greek team FC Xanthi, who Emerson, once one of Boro’s most high profile players, now played for. Over two legs we brushed them aside, winning 2-0 at home and then maintaining a 0-0 draw away in Greece. We continued on triumphantly, topping our group. On paper we were confident our chances of qualifying were higher than the previous year, as we had been grouped with lower profile teams. And so it proved: we won 1-0 away against Grasshoppers of Zurich, overcame Dnipro of the Ukraine 3-0 at home, drew 0-0 away with Holland’s AZ Alkmaar and secured the top spot with a 2-0 home victory against Bulgaria’s Litex Lovech.

This was just the initial test to separate the worthy from the incompetent though, as in the last 32 we were drawn against one of Germany’s top clubs, VfB Stuttgart, and if we defeated them we’d more than likely be up against AS Roma of Italy, a team who need no introduction! The going had suddenly got tough! What’s more we were on poor form leading up to the Stuttgart tie. However, the seeds of recovery were just beginning to show as we travelled to Germany.

Rochemback tangles with a Stuttgart player

We sensed this was a match not to miss, so a few friends grabbed some cheap flights departing from London Stansted. Being as dedicated as we were, we drove down during the night in order to catch the plane at 7 a.m. Despite our lack of sleep and the shock of being awake at such an unearthly hour, the holiday spirit reigned over us upon checking in at the airport, and we enjoyed an early morning vodka and coke to celebrate! Just one though as we were to collect a hire car at the other end! The flight was smooth and passed quickly and before we knew it we had touched down in Karlsruhe-Baden airport. We collected our car and continued the hour’s drive to Stuttgart. We had been given a lovely black top-of-the-range BMW 1 series to cruise around in. Although it was good, it was comparable to trying to crack a nut with a sledge hammer – we only drove for a grand total of about 2.5 hours during our whole trip. It was funny changing the Sat-Nav to different languages though and the 3 stage heated seats were class!

Anyway, I digress! After dropping our luggage off at the hotel, we took the tram to the city centre just a mile away. We enjoyed our afternoon just wandering the streets; the atmosphere was so energetic – Stuttgart was clearly getting into the footballing spirit, gearing up to be one of the hosts in the upcoming World Cup. There were even footballs hanging from all of the trees! A slight downside though was that to our knowledge there was only one bar in the entire city allowing Boro supporters inside. But what a bar it was! It was constantly bouncing the duration we were there. For reference, it was called Sophie’s Bar. I was unable to celebrate with the lads one day though, as I was tucked up in bed with a nasty 24 hour sickness bug. Gutted! It was so hard staying at the hotel whilst the guys were having an immense time out and about. I was really concerned whether I’d actually make the game too. It was pretty touch and go. The lads weren’t concerned though! They just took the mickey and taunted that I was faking it! I was determined to make the game. It was what this trip was all about after all. After sleeping for a very long time, I suddenly felt a whole lot better come morning, and I was up and ready to cheer on my team. We made our way to the stadium in spite of the pouring February rain. I can only describe the experience as magical. The stadium was awe-inspiring and the atmosphere was electric. So big, there was space for a running track around the edge the pitch (which I guess was a little odd!) In the first half, Hasselbaink sent up shooting 1-0 up, and soon after half time Stuart Parnaby consolidated our lead straight with another goal, following a cracking run down the wing from George Boateng. The second leg was still in the balance though, as the dangerous Daniel Ljuboja scored a free kick before the end of the match!

Mendieta challenges for the ball back at the Riverside

This didn’t dampen our celebrations though, as we had unexpectedly managed to defeat a top German side. Away too! By this point I was definitely feeling brighter and we headed back to Sophie’s bar for a party! In the morning I was feeling far better than I had the previous day, it was my friends’ turn to suffer because they’d celebrated far harder than I had, so it was quite a rough journey home.

At home, our hearts sank as Stuttgart scored an early goal, thanks to Christian Tiffert, but we held on superbly well and made some skilled blocks. In particular, one of Boateng’s was immense! After a nailbiting 90 minutes, the final whistle blew and we were through. It was the greatest win I had witnessed (to that point) as a Boro fan. As  expected Roma knocked Club Brugge out, and we were to play them next. In the Pacific Bar after the game, which had become our post European night haunt, me and my mate James were in still shock. We just couldn’t believe we’d knocked the mighty Stuttgart out and were preparing to face Roma…It was like a dream!!

By Ben Charlton