Monday, 10 March 2008

Game 14: Middlesbrough 0, Cardiff City 2

6th Round Proper
Sunday March 9th 2008

Kick Off 2:00pm

Attendance: 32,896
Weather: Cold, windy and sunny spells

Distance travelled: 522 miles

As I sit down to write this on Monday morning many parts of the country continue to be battered by storms. And for two days a maelstrom of sorts tore its way through the FA Cup leaving the form book in tatters. On a special weekend that will live long in the memories of football fans up and down the country and around the world, only one top division side is left standing in the competition. Up at the Riverside on a cold and blustery Sunday, Cardiff City produced a polished display to blow Middlesbrough out of the cup.

For me, and my fellow travellers - Mackem, PB and POSH mate (aka Fenlander) - it was a fantastic, tiring and somewhat surreal day. It started huddled against the elements at little after seven o'clock in the morning outside Chertsey Town Football Club. We were to be accompanied on this leg of the FA Cup journey by an ESPN-Star film crew and the day started with a quick interview where it all began back in August. The filming was to continue later in the day (before and after the game) and this added some gloss and sparkle to what was a marvellous occasion.

It was a long journey North but well worth it. We had no problems whatsoever in finding the ground and arrived nice and early. The Riverside sits alone in quite an open spread of a semi-industrial landscape. It dominates the horizon. It is an impressive sight and is by far the biggest ground we have visited on this run. The view from inside the ground, looking back out towards Middlesbrough and its famous transporter bridge straddling the River Tees, is also quite impressive. Parking was easy and getting away after the game (which included us being filmed as we walked off into the sunset) was a doddle.

The game was a sell out with an official attendance of 32,896; Middlesbrough have been striving for some time to fill the Riverside. There was a real buzz of excitement in and around the ground. Only one game from Wembley, over two hundred and fifty miles away but within touching distance. Cardiff City had brought with them a considerable following (just under 4,000) and their vocal chords were getting a good run-in well before kick-off. The home support had also been whipped into a frenzy by the stadium announcer. As the teams ran out to "Papa's Got A Brand New Pigbag" an impressive 6,000 card display in the North Stand (home end) spelt out the words "Sporting Glory". The atmosphere was positively crackling and even as a neutral one couldn’t help but feel a real part of what was about to unfold.

And the crackling evolved into a shock. Another cup shock.

Middlesbrough simply failed to live up to expectations. In a game where it was difficult to identify the team from the Premier League, Cardiff put in a totally composed and professional performance that left the home team chasing shadows.

As in the Fifth Round game, Cardiff City found themselves nurturing a two goal lead long before half-time. Both teams started brightly and the atmosphere had obviously filtered through to the players. But it was Cardiff who pounced early. A ball was lofted into the Middlesbrough box which appeared to be brought under control by the arm of Stephen McPhail. With the Middlesbrough players appealing and the referee waving play on, Peter Whittingham ignored the protestations; with some extremely neat footwork and a sea of red shirts on top of him, Whittingham somehow dug the ball out from under his feet to send a glorious curling shot beyond Schwarzer and in off the post. A wonderful goal which stunned the home crowd; the away fans in the South Stand exploded with joy which prompted a rather comical "Keystone Cops" entrance from a number of sprinting policemen across and in front of the Cardiff support to prevent any pitch encroachment. Nine minutes gone and already theatre of high calibre.

If the home crowd were stunned, then so were the home team players. The goal visibly affected the Middlesbrough side. Their game plan seemed to involve hoofing one long ball after another up field. The intended recipients, Alves or Tuncay, are both gifted players but surely would have benefited with balls played to feet. I had been especially looking forward to seeing Tuncay as he had impressed me this season, but today the game bypassed him. Even the long twenty or thirty yard balls out to Downing on the left were ineffective and Middlesbrough had no outlet on the right as Luke Young frequently balked at stepping over the halfway line.

By contrast, Cardiff were assured and confident in their approach play. They showed better movement both on and off the ball and brought to the match more ideas and invention. The slicker movement heralded a second goal after twenty three minutes. Hasselbaink, who was roundly applauded by all areas of the ground before kick-off, won a free-kick thirty yards out after a clumsy challenge by the gloved Rochemback. From the dead ball, Whittingham curled in a pin point cross to the far post which was met beyond the last defender by a diving Roger Johnson to send a header back across goal and into the corner. Cardiff in control and the South Stand once again rocking.

Middlesbrough simply had no response. More long balls, more wasted possession and barely capable of stringing more than a couple of passes together. They had only one long range effort from Alves in the first half which was easily parried by Enckelman in the Cardiff goal. Any glimpses of danger from the home team were quickly and ably dealt with by Glenn Loovens and his defensive partners who coped with everything punted towards them. Loovens, for me, was the man of the match.

Middlesbrough had an opportunity at half-time to change their system. But all they did was bring off Alves for Mido and persist in playing the same long ball game that had failed them in the first forty five minutes. The home support were becoming increasingly frustrated and let their feelings be known. Cardiff City were now in complete ascendancy and there was no sign that Middlesbrough were going to break the Welsh team's stranglehold. The second half, although a little scrappy, was still good to watch. Middlesbrough were utterly disappointing and failed to give Enckelman a single test. Cardiff were content to sit a little deeper, pack the midfield and see out the game. The home fans started to drift out of the stadium with seventy minutes on the clock. For a game that promised so much for the Smoggies, one could sense that they felt totally let down.

Overall, Cardiff City were the only team that looked like winning this tie. The Cardiff fans made the most of the victory and celebrated in style, a cacophony of noise and a swarm of dancing bodies, Welsh flags, giant daffodils and even one bare-chested hardy soul wearing only a pink tutu. I'm sure that their long trip back home would have been one to savour.

Gareth Southgate, in his programme notes, had talked about the need to pass the ball and keep the ball on the floor. I think he forgot to tell his players. There was a huge "Spirit of Steaua" flag waved in one corner of the game in reference to Middlesbrough's famous UEFA Cup victory over the Romanian team. But this flag was rolled up and packed away long before the final whistle. Middlesbrough can now concentrate on the league whilst Cardiff City are off to Wembley, along with Portsmouth, Barnsley and West Bromwich Albion.

It is one hundred years since an FA Cup semi-final line up has included only one top flight team. This season has witnessed an extraordinary and quite remarkable FA Cup competition. We all left Teesside for a long Sunday evening car journey down the M1 sensing that we really had been, and continue to be, involved in something special. Something very, very special. For an FA Cup that people will talk about for years, I and my friends who have joined me already have our own little place in it.

And on a stormy March day, with Wembley in sight, the thought of it simply blows me away.

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