Now, I’m going to nail my colours to the mast from the off – I’m a huge lover of domestic cup competitions. I don’t see them as distractions, a waste of time or pointless.
All throughout my life as a Boro fan there’s been countless moments of joy, and anguish of course, with many a cup run. The buzz of the one-off scenario, well almost if you allow for potential replays, is something that gets me excited. Yes we all know the league is the bread and butter, and depending on your teams circumstances it could be the priority, however there’s nothing like a good cup run.
After last night’s victory at Aston Villa in the League Cup, or Carabao Cup to give its full, god awful title, it’s got me dreaming of another potential cup story. Of course, we could end up meeting Manchester United away and get smashed in the 4th round, cup run over, but a win could see us reach the quarter finals. At that point it’s really a case of anything could happen, you really can dream then.
But do we need a cup run? Is it a worthwhile distraction for us? Well as mentioned previously I’m clearly all for them, no matter what the circumstance, but with us undoubtedly chasing promotion I do understand the concern some may have at its potential side-effects.
After spending seven long years in the Championship before finally going up in 2015/16, what we want to avoid is another lengthy period in the second tier. Ideally we want out of what surely is one of the toughest leagues around as soon as possible, so anything that could jeopardise that should be pushed to one side, no? All those types of arguments are absolutely valid; you’d be well within your rights to suggest that the lack of distraction would be of benefit to a romp towards promotion. I’m not going to be so pig-headed as to not try and see it from the other angle; however it doesn’t mean I’ll ever agree with it. I just won’t, simple as that.
There’s something magical about those mid-week games, under the lights against a team from the division above, or indeed us being the team that’s favourites against a plucky underdog. It’s a chance for either us or the opposition to test itself in a one-off scenario, with the prize being the next step on the ladder to Wembley. Fair enough, the natural order of things generally means the big boys take their place in the latter stages, however there’s plenty of examples where that’s simply not been the case. Middlesbrough have been one of the shining example of this over the years.
Some of my greatest times as a Boro fan have come in cup competitions – lots of them in fact. If you discount the European adventures, which were quite simply on another scale altogether, the domestic cup competitions have created so many glorious memories. Without them my life as a Boro fan wouldn’t have been half as interesting.
Given I was born in late 1984 my recollection of the ZDS Cup Final against Chelsea, a familiar foe over the years, is rather limited. The story of the final itself is brought to life by my father, who attended the game with my older brother. Even from the pictures and tales of the day I get goose bumps. The sense of occasion, the chance of silverwear, to potentially lift a trophy at one of the greatest stadiums in the world, as a fan to be in with a chance of witnessing something like that is a feeling like no other.
I have very vague memories of the 1991/92 Rumbelow’s Cup run (back in the days when the sponsor’s didn’t sound so ridiculous), the semi-final second leg at Old Trafford. Going into the game level after a stalemate in the Ayresome Park tie, it was a tough ask to come away from Manchester with a win, but how close was it? Looking back now at the various YouTube clips I find the memories come flooding back.
The crowd behind the goal when Slaven equalises, the euphoria (limbs, scenes or whatever modern-day description you’d use), it just looked unreal. But for a youthful Ryan Giggs winner and Peter Schmeichal pulling off some wonderful saves, we could’ve gone through. Just imagine the scenes had we won? They were amazing enough in defeat. You’d be hard pressed to capture that emotion and feeling in a routine 2-0 win in the league. Of course, winning each week in the league helps towards the end goal, promotion, where the party really is something special.
Brighton at home in 2016 tells you all need to know about that, but it’s the culmination of a long season. Cup games, well they have that excitement and unbridled joy in most games, especially in the latter rounds when you really sense there could be a chance of glory.
Yes, I know, in the early rounds cup competitions are awash with half empty stadiums and weakened teams, depending on the fixture and its significance to the teams involved, but it doesn’t take long before the smell of Wembley reaches the nostrils.
The journey to glory is a quicker one, massive highs in among a season where you could be trundling along in mid table. Or it could be running alongside what’s shaping up to be a successful league campaign, with your form in the league benefitting from the confidence attained from cup progression. Just look at the aforementioned 1991/92 season, as well as the 1997/98 season. Both ended in promotion, but both also featured lengthy cup runs.
The 97/98 season saw Boro reach the final of the Coca Cola Cup (getting worse but yet still not hilariously named), only to lose to bloody Chelsea. All the same though, you can’t tell me the joy of the cup run had an adverse effect on the players, if anything it boosted their confidence. Momentum was surely gained from it.
You can point to the season prior obviously, where we were relegated, controversially after reaching both the FA Cup Final and the League Cup final. However, without the farcical ‘three points’ debacle, we’d have stayed up and maybe kicked on to greater things, yet it wasn’t to be. If only we’d fielded a team at Blackburn that day, but that’s another story.
I remember being at Wembley for the League Cup final against Leicester, a wide eyed 12-yr-old looking up at the decrepit old stadium in all its glory thinking “this is way better than anything I’ve ever experienced”. Ok, come full time, after Emile Heskey’s heartbreaking intervention (ball was still out by the way), I probably didn’t feel as positive as I had done before the game. However, once the dust had settled and my emotions were in check, the enormity of the occasion hit home once more. I think as an adult, cup games still allow for that boyish enthusiasm and excitement, a hope that something special could happen.
In 2004 something special did happen. Cardiff.
I wasn’t there unfortunately, I had to make do with the living room with my parents, but we whipped up our own atmosphere as daft as it sounds, it was fun. Not something you’d be able to recreate for a league game away at Burton on a Tuesday night if watching from your sofa that’s for sure.
The range of emotions we went through that day are hard to describe. As usual, it wasn’t a straightforward display, despite the opening five minutes suggesting it might be pretty routine. Yet, when the final whistle went, when we’d finally won a major trophy, beating Bolton in the Carling Cup (its best name by far), myself and my folks jumped up and down like a kid would if he’d just been promised an ice cream – total joy. We’d finally tasted victory in a major final, wow. This is what it was all about. I think anyone who’s been a fan long enough to count that day as a significant one in their Boro-supporting lives should always back a cup run. Why wouldn’t you want the chance to experience that again? Why would you be ok with potentially missing out on something on the scale of that afternoon in Cardiff? Madness.
In recent seasons we’ve had away days at Manchester City, Liverpool, United – all very memorable. The wins at both Manchester clubs were high points in Aitor Karanka’s reign, a sign of how far he brought us. The Liverpool defeat, whilst still a defeat, was the perfect example of why cup competitions are worthwhile. It had everything, resulting in a ridiculously, yet thrilling, penalty shootout that seemed to last for hours. We wouldn’t have had that had we not bothered to show up at home against Preston in the round before. Same goes for the away tie at Barnsley prior to the City victory in the FA Cup.
To bring us back to the present day though, the win last night at Villa might well be the pre-cursor to a memorable trip to Wembley to play Tottenham. A chance to banish the hoodoo early on before we go back there for the real thing in the final, who knows?
Whoever we get in the draw, to me it doesn’t matter, I’ll be championing the need for us to take it seriously, not thinking “oh well, it’s perhaps time we bowed out now”. No way.