Joe Nicholson: How European football has changed since Middlesbrough's memorable UEFA Cup run

Middlesbrough's UEFA Cup hero Massimo Maccarone.Middlesbrough's UEFA Cup hero Massimo Maccarone.
Middlesbrough's UEFA Cup hero Massimo Maccarone.
European football returns this week with Chelsea, Arsenal and Wolves all set to compete in the second-tier Europa League.

It’s a shame the competition has been viewed quite negatively in recent years, with sides preferring to concentrate on Premier League consolidation instead.

In the last few years, Burnley and West Ham have failed to come through qualifying, while teams like Southampton and Everton have used the Thursday, Sunday schedule as an excuse for their dips in form.

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It’s a stark contract to when Middlesbrough reached the final in 2006, when it was called the UEFA Cup, and it was league games which took a back seat.

Monday marked the 15-year anniversary since Boro made their debut in a major European competition when Czech side Banik Ostrava visited the Riverside. What a journey it turned out to be.

Ali Brownlee’s radio commentary when Robbie Fowler’s penalty at Manchester City was saved, which secured a seventh-place finish to send Boro back into Europe, still gives you goosebumps.

What happened the following season was truly remarkable.

On two separate occasions Boro needed to score four times to progress, against Swiss side Basel and Romanian outfit Steaua Bucharest, in the quarter and semi-finals respectively.

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“They say lightning never strikes twice,” shouted Brownlee. On this occasion it did.

Since then the big four has become the big six, therefore making it harder to secure a European place.

Plus, the constant flow of television money has strengthened the Premier League from top to bottom, with the midfield pack and relegation candidates merging closer together.

The cost of relegation from the top-flight is now astronomical and most clubs seemingly don’t have the squad to compete on both fronts.

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Then there’s the Europa League itself, which has expended significantly and seemingly risen in quality over the last decade.

When Boro reached the final in 2006, they won 14 games to reach the showpiece event. In contrast, Wolves, who finished seventh last campaign, will have won 20 matches if they progress that far.

From a financial standpoint, Premier League stability may seem like a far more attractive proposition, yet the memories of Boro’s European adventure will live far longer in the memory.