On 20th April 2006, Boro were embarking on a UEFA Cup semi-final journey like no other.
Here, in this article, is recollections from that day in Romania and the return leg at the Riverside, in what is still one of the most incredible comeback victories in the history of English football.
Peter Foster – ‘We came back with a chance’
“The stadium was really old and there were trees half way up this slope,” he says. “It was a proper old fashioned European stadium.
“We were tucked in at the side, I don’t know how many of us there was, maybe a couple of thousand.”
1,800 Boro fans were in the stands at the Ghencea that night, and Peter recalls the display being somewhat indifferent.
“The game itself was pretty dull. Boro just defended really, we lost 1-0. I can remember (Ugo) Ehiougu having a good game but I don’t remember us having many chances.”
But as for most games in Europe, the experience before and after the football is what stays in the memory.
“We must’ve got a taxi back into Bucharest and stayed over night,” Peter says. “I can remember still being out at 4 or 5am, drinking in a bar and suddenly this door bursts open and there were six daft young lads from Boro followed by the biggest set of bounces you’ve ever seen in your life.
“I think they’d gone into one of those bars where it’s suddenly £100 a drink and they didn’t fancy the look of it so they escaped through the fire door.
“I mentioned it on Twitter a while back and someone said ‘that was me!’
“The game wasn’t memorable at all, we just came back with a chance.
“We didn’t play that well, we didn’t play that badly, but we came back with a chance.”
Peter has keepsakes from the European trips, proudly displayed on his wall, visible in the virtual chat I had.
Mat Evans – ‘The atmosphere was unbelievable’
Mat had travelled with his friends to earlier round trips to Roma and AZ Alkmaar, but wasn’t accompanied by them in Romania.
“We got to Bucharest, obviously it’s a bit of a longer flight over there so it’s a little bit more expensive,” he says. “I think a lot of the lads had exhausted their own funds at that point, so I had to travel over with my Mum and Dad.
“They’re both fanatics themselves and they’d gone to nearly every game that season, usually with the chartered flights that’d been put on.”
Mat and his parents had set off from a bustling-with-Boro Teesside airport in the early morning and arrived in Romania mid-day.
There was heavy police presence around Bucharest as police expected trouble. There was none of that though, according to Mat, who ended up making his debut on Romanian TV and striking up a good rapport with a few Steaua supporters.
“We ended up at some Irish bar. I got there, and I put my flag up,” the flag read ‘Stockton Smoggies, European Tour’ and was a familiar sight when Mat was travelling to Boro games.
“There was a camera crew outside, this lady comes over and says ‘do you mind if we have a chat with you for Romanian TV?’”
The lady in question quizzed Mat on his flag, and its placement.
“I was trying to explain it, it’s quite difficult when you think about it.
“I just said, look it’s tribalism, you show your colours, especially when you travel away from home. It’s not meant to antagonise anybody.
“She seemed really taken aback by it, like she was wanting some sort of expose piece about Middlesbrough hooligans. I was only 22 at the time with long, crap hair – I didn’t look the most aggressive type in the world!”
The Steaua fans were no trouble at all. They’d invited Mat to sit with them, offered him Steaua shorts and even asked for him to teach English to kids over the phone.
As for the game, Mat remembers the atmosphere of the home fans.
“The atmosphere was unbelieveable,” he says. “It’s up there with the best atmopsheres I’ve experienced.
“I think it was 50,000 capacity and there was no roof on the stadium. It just seemed to be 50,000 big, burly blokes bellowing at the top of their lungs.
“They also had Scooter, Maria belting out over huge speakers dotted all around the pitch and they had those up full base, so that was booming out.
“We tried singing it but we were absolutely blown away by them. It was just outrageous.”
Boro were defeated 1-0 in the first leg courtesy of a Nicolae Dica goal, and for some, the mood was downtrodden, for others they were hopeful, but for most, they just wanted a ticket.
Matthew Smith – ‘It was absolutely bonkers’
“If I remember rightly I heard something on the radio just as I was setting off to come home from Sunderland that there was still some tickets left.
“So, foot down, straight down the A19, left my car somewhere. I literally ran in the clothes I was wearing from work to try to get on the end of this queue.
Matthew remembers the queue snaking around towards the South Stand, so despite being up against it going into the home leg, the tickets were evidently highly coveted.
“All of a sudden a steward comes around the corner and says that anyone from this point isn’t going to get a seat.
“Of course, I was stood about five people behind this point.”
Matthew’s despair soon turned to intrigue. As he was walking away, a Steaua fan approaches him.
“I hear this voice in broken English behind saying ‘you want a ticket?’ I turned around and there was this guy in a Steaua scarf and I thought it was a wind up
“I said, ‘what do you want for it?’ expecting him to say £200 of something like that and completely fleece me. He said £30.”
The fan explained how the ticket was in amongst the home end, and he had a spare anyway.
“I went straight into the seat and I was sat there looking around, rooted to it right until kick off because I was convinced someone would have spotted me somewhere on CCTV and thought I bought it illegally.
“But it was legit, or as legit as it could be.
“Interestingly enough, the ticket that I got was about four seats away from where my normal season ticket used to be and I saw some familiar faces!
“It was one of those games where it was going so quickly and there was so much going on that there wasn’t really a time where you could step back and observe what was going on. It was crazy, absolutely bonkers.”
Ben Jaab – ‘I didn’t feel confident’
“My Dad picked up my uncle and my cousin and my uncle gave my Dad a look as if to say ‘you think something’s on here, you think it’s gonna be a good one’.
“It was nervous, I remember it being quiet in the ground. No matter what people tried, and I know there was the big card display pre-match, I didn’t feel confident.
“It felt subdued. There must have been people in the press box chanting over the tannoy. It was really strange.”
Mat Evans remembers similar.
“A lot of people were kicking off about it,” he says. “We were sat in the South, just in front of the communications box. A lot of people turned around and were shouting, saying ‘turn that f**king shit off’.
“You could sort of see where Boro were coming from because the atmosphere was so dead.
“Nobody believed after that first half, especially after those two goals go in, that anything is happening.”
Dorin Goian and first-leg goalscorer Dica put the visitors 2-0 up on the night, and 3-0 up on aggregate. Boro had more than a mountain to climb, needing four goals to progress through to the UEFA Cup final.
Hopes were very much fading away, but did the fans think that was it?
James Prosho – ‘It was chaos’
James Prosho almost didn’t return to his seat for the second half.
“I was 18,” he says. “We were going to go to the Empire immediately afterwards, because Club NME was on on a Thursday.
“We used to go every single week without fail, and it was really good for European games because you’d go to the game and then go to the Empire afterwards.
“We were convinced we weren’t going through and that second Steaua goal went in and we were like ‘sod it, should we make an early start on the night?’
“Two mates were saying ‘what will we lose if we stay?’ and ‘what if we do go through?’ We said we’d stay, and luckily we did.
James carried on the post-match Club NME tradition after that game, and vividly remembers the celebrations.
“Going out in Middlesbrough after that game was chaos,” he says.
“We did end up going to the Empire with about eight middle aged men that were stood around us. We dragged them to the Empire and they were proper fish out of water.
“They must’ve played pigbag about five times during the night, and it never got old. It was ridiculous.”
Watch the video below for more recollections from the second leg.
Jamie Morgan – ‘The best night of my life’
“You won’t ever experience drama like that, I don’t care who you support.
“It was that classic, is lightning going to strike twice? I remember getting the train down from Newcastle, and I got there really early so I was stood around the ground.
“Radio Tees interviewed me at six o’clock with a few others. I didn’t predict the right score but I predicted we’d win, and I said we’d probably make it hard for ourselves.
“That night in particular, I didn’t want to leave. We were still there 30 or 40 minutes, almost an hour after the full-time whistle.
“I remember hugging people that I didn’t know and going ‘this is as close to heaven as you’ll ever get’, and to say that about your own football club… that is priceless.
“It was arguably the best night of my life.”
“Are we in the middle of some strange dream or are we watching a tape of another game?”
JON CHAMPION, ITV COMMENTATOR FOR MIDDLESBROUGH VS STEAUA
Just like in the previous round against Basel, Massimo Maccarone stepped up when it mattered to head home the winner and once again etch his name into Middlesbrough history.
It wasn’t all rosy on Teesside for the horizontal hero though.
Two years prior, on February 29th 2004, ‘El Gladiatore’ had stood in the middle of the Millennium pitch in tears. On that day, a day of celebration for those in red, he was having to swallow a very bitter pill.
Matty Jones, host of the Boro Podcast on BBC Radio Tees, interviewed Maccarone about that day.
“He said that Steve McClaren had promised him for a month before that game that he’d play, and he didn’t come on. He went into the changing rooms and cried his eyes out.
“He said, ‘I’m going to prove a point to you in the next few years.”
And that he did.
I asked the fans to describe that moment. Some could, but others couldn’t find the words to truly express the emotion in that goal.
‘We were absolutely blown away’
“I don’t think I could ever describe that feeling,” says Peter. “I’d say it was better than Cardiff, when we won the cup. I still think that’s the best Boro moment, better than Cardiff, better than some of the games in the 80s.
“I was at Chelsea when we went up two years in a row, that was a good feeling, but there was something different about this.”
Ben is of the same stance.
“I can’t really comprehend the feeling at the time,” he says. “I just remember hugging my cousin and we were both quite little so we’d stand up on the seats. It was so euphoric.”
“We were stunned,” says Mat. “I think my Mum celebrated but me and my Dad just looked at each other.
“I specifically remember not even celebrating. We were absolutely blown away by what had just happened. We couldn’t believe it.”
For some, the effects of such euphoria could be identified several days after that game.
“I remember for about six days afterwards having bruises on my shins from when I’d gone into the seat in front of me,” Matthew says.
“It’s one of those, you don’t realise you’ve nearly broken the skin of your shins at the time. You’re so caught up in it.
“Leaving the stadium, I remember a Steaua fan coming up to me and shaking my hand. He said ‘you’re gonna win it guys, it’s yours’.”
Looking back, it’s a case of what could have been for Boro, but most Steaua fans – to their credit – were gracious in defeat.
“They were let out at the same time as us,” Mat remembers. “The shock on every one of their faces, none of them could believe what had just happened.
“They were stood around, hands on their hips. I came over, tapped them on the back and I didn’t know what to say.
“We shook hands and they said congratulations and then I went into town and had more beers to celebrate!”
Pride has been mentioned a few times in this project, but that night was one where you could stick your chest out and say with undeniable honour: ‘my team, Middlesbrough’.
And it may not have ended with Boro’s name scratched into silver, but it didn’t need to be.
The ‘Small Town in Europe’ went on to do big things, and that was enough to live long in the memories, even 15 years on.
It’s worth another look at the highlights, right?
Soon to be a Sports Journalism graduate!