The fans view: Middlesbrough s

Middlesbrough certainly like to do things the hard way. “Why win an FA Cup tie in 90 minutes when you can get a replay, extra-time and penalties?” seems to be their motto this season. Tonight’s trip to Old Trafford is their fourth replay in the competition and arguably their toughest.

Manchester United, and Ronaldo in particular, were awesome against Bolton at the weekend and the Treble dream is still well and truly alive for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. Despite injuries to key men, Saha, Solskjaer and now Gary Neville, United have marched on and snatched crucial points in vital games. They have the class, the players, and, following the disputed penalty in the first game at the Riverside, the rub of the green and don’t look like losing again until the end of the season.

However, Middlesbrough go into the game with nothing to fear. Old Trafford has been a happy hunting ground for them in recent seasons, having lost just twice in the past six meetings, and Susan Gardener, chairman of the Middlesbrough Official Supporters Club, is looking forward to tonight.

“We tend to play very well there for some reason. Maybe it is because we have had a lot of links to Manchester United over the past years, so therefore do not feel as intimidated as some other teams appear to be. We have a good record at Old Trafford and hopefully we will get a win, most of our fans think we can do it.

“We need to go into the replay with every effort to win the game. They say attack is the best form of defence, which is what we need to do from the start. We cannot allow Manchester United to pile on the pressure and hope our defence, although it is very strong, to have to endure long periods of soaking up that pressure. Then again we are very good on counter attacks. I think it all depends who Southgate decides to select for the team.”

Middlesbrough showed a lot of spirit in the original tie by coming back from an early Wayne Rooney strike to lead 2-1, before the game turned on a disputed penalty awarded to United. George Boateng was alleged to have intentionally handled from a United flick on from a corner and Rob Styles pointed to the spot, much to Boateng’s and Susan’s dismay.

“I thought the penalty shout was rather harsh, as proven to be in the Chelsea-Spurs game on Sunday when a penalty was not given for near enough the same thing happening in the box as with George Boateng.”

Ronaldo coolly slotted the penalty home to secure tonight’s replay and Gareth Southgate is going to find it incredibly hard to keep the Portuguese international quiet. He has been in sparkling form since his controversial return from the World Cup and is certain to be crowned the player of the year after some breathtaking performances.

The prize in store for the winners is a semi-final clash with the Premiership’s basement boys Watford and both United and Middlesbrough will fancy their chances of beating the Hornets and being one of the first sides to step out at the new Wembley Stadium. Some neutrals believe that the corporate big wigs were selling their grannies to keep Chelsea and Manchester United apart to set up the “glamour final”, but Susan is a lot more philosophical.

“Some fans have made comments on the FA trying to make sure that Manchester Utd and Chelsea are the ones playing in the final, but I wasn’t really concerned with the draw we have to beat whoever we play to get to the final, so will deserve to be there no matter who we play. Watford are a good, battling side and are hard to wear down at times, so playing them in the semis would not be that easy.”

Middlesbrough obviously had their eye on the replay as they went down 2-0 at home against strugglers Manchester City and Southgate’s men know that this is their only hope of silverware this season. They have needed replays against Hull City, Bristol City, West Brom and now Manchester United to get to this stage, and Susan, who thought Julio Arca was amazing in the first clash, is bracing herself for penalties.

“If we have to take extra time and then penalties then so be it, but I hope we can get the game finished (and in our favour) in 90 minutes. I don’t think these penalty shootouts are doing me much good. This FA cup run is putting a large dent in our fans’ pockets but this will all be forgiven if we can reach the final, we can’t say then if we do reach Wembley that is wasn’t worth it!”

Manchester United have won the FA Cup more times than any other, 11, and will be desperate to see off Boro to keep their Treble dream on track. Boro’s one and only FA Cup final appearance came 10 years ago when they lost 2-0 to Chelsea, having already been relegated from the Premiership. With their Premiership survival more or less secured the Riverside club can go into the clash without any pressure and could spring a huge cup shock.

With the attacking threat of United they are always going to pose the Boro defence problems, as Southgate’s men have only managed to keep just two clean sheets this calendar year. But the likes of Viduka, Yakubu and Downing can all turn the game with a slice of brilliance and Susan believes that any Boro players could become a hero tonight.

“I think the whole team needs to just keep their concentration and go for it, what have they got to lose as most people think Manchester United have already won this game anyway? Let’s hope we can prove them all wrong.”

Reading almost took the Premiership leaders to extra-time in the last round at the Madejski Stadium, following an incredible opening by the Red Devils, so Southgate will be drumming home the message to his players to keep it tight for the opening 20 minutes and to keep pressing away as they will create chances.

With home advantage United are understandably favourites, but this is the FA Cup and only a fool would take Middlesbrough lightly. And with Boro’s recent record, you wouldn’t bet against extra-time once again.

Colin Illingworth
18 March 2007