Exclusive: Former Middlesbrough boss Steve McClaren recalls the greatest moments and biggest challenges during 2006 UEFA Cup run

Steve McClaren led Middlesbrough to the UEFA Cup final in 2006.Steve McClaren led Middlesbrough to the UEFA Cup final in 2006.
Steve McClaren led Middlesbrough to the UEFA Cup final in 2006.
Steve McClaren still remembers what he said to his Middlesbrough squad following their astonishing UEFA Cup win over Swiss side Basel in 2006. “Really enjoy this one, enjoy the night because this will never happen again,” was his post-match message.

What McClaren and the 25,000 fans inside the Riverside had just witnessed was one of the most unlikely and dramatic sporting comebacks you could ever imagine.

Boro needed to score four times in 57 minutes to avoid elimination from the competition – and, with just a few moments of stoppage-time to spare, they did it.

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“That season was a difficult one,” McClaren tells the Mail when recalling Boro’s 2005/06 campaign and run to a European cup final.

“I think we finished 14th in the league but we knew this would probably be the last year in Europe – we weren’t going to qualify again.

“The first leg of the Basel game was 2-0 away. I remember sat in the stand over there and thinking this is the end, they are a damn good team and we’ll do well to pull back from this. We were fortunate just to lose 2-0 I think.

“In the home game we conceded early and then the heroics began and they were heroics.”

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Massimo Maccarone’s last-minute winner proved the difference that night and three weeks late, despite McClaren’s prediction, the same thing happened again. This time Romanian outfit Steaua Bucharest were stunned.

“Again we just thought we had no chance because they were that good a team,” admits McClaren when asked about the second four-goal comeback.

“We lost 1-0 away and were never in the game. We went 2-0 down in the second leg and lost (Gareth) Southgate early in the game. Once he hobbled off you just think what a great run, just at least make a fight of this. We did more than that.”

McClaren’s era was certainly a prosperous period in the club’s history as Boro secured their first trophy in 128 years by winning the 2004 Carling Cup, before back-to-back seasons in Europe.

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Those matches seem a distant memory now, especially with the Teessiders languishing just above the Championship relegation zone.

“You look back now and really realise just how big those moments were,” adds McClaren, who joined Boro in 2001 after being Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant at Manchester United.

“I knew it was big from my experiences with Manchester United, I knew European competitions and European nights especially were always special. That’s what they used to say at Man U.

“To get the opportunity to experience that with Middlesbrough, although it was different, it’s stuff you can only dream about playing the likes of Lazio, Roma and Basel.

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“It was huge, it was special and I knew it would be. I think looking back, especially now, it was probably not as appreciated as much or really taken in at the time from the supporters.

“I think now we look back and go wow! I speak to a lot of supporters and they say wow those days were some of the best days we’ll ever have.”

Thousands of Boro fans enjoyed their European tour which eventually ended in Eindhoven when the Teessiders were beaten by Spanish side Sevilla in the final.

Some of McClaren’s fondest memories came when mixing with travelling Boro fans who were lapping up the unique experience.

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When asked if one particular trip stood out, McClaren replies: “I think the Roma one because they were a huge team with a reputation in Europe.

“Just for our supporters to visit Rome. We went the night before and I remember walking out in the morning and strolling round Rome and bumping into Middlesbrough supporters having an espresso, cappuccino on the sidewalk.

“Winning the game and progressing was the stuff of dreams.”

Boro’s success inevitably had its challenges, though, not least trying to manage a big squad and accommodate four talented strikers in the shape of Mark Viduka, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Yakubu and Massimo Maccarone.

“Teams couldn’t handle the firepower that we had,” says McClaren when discussing the squad which Boro assembled with backing from chairman Steve Gibson.

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“I think the second year of Europe we really thought we’d gotten a hold of Europe. They didn’t like playing against Viduka and Hasselbaink, or Viduka and Yakubu, or Hasselbaink and Yakubu.

“Centre-backs didn’t like that, they weren’t used to that and it was a formula which certainly worked because they could handle the firepower up front that we had.

“If we hadn’t got into Europe, Steve wouldn’t have bought those players, that was the key to years four and five that I had at Middlesbrough with those goals that we had.

“Handling those players was probably the toughest assignment in football that I possibly had. To leave one of them out was a nightmare and sometimes I could only play one.

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Still, with Boro competing in several competitions, a large squad was essential to fight on multiple fronts.

“It helped that we also went to the FA Cup semi-final in that season so I think in total we played around 65 games so we needed a squad,” recalls McClaren. “That’s the only thing that enabled me to control that situation.

“They all wanted to play in the big games, that wasn’t possible. That was the difficulty when the big games came along knowing who to play.”

In the end that attacking firepower made all the difference as Boro achieved what no one thought was possible– not once but twice.