Saturday 24th January. A day that will live long in the memory of Middlesbrough supporters far and wide. A day that the lucky 5,505 (including myself) who got tickets will never forget. A day that Boro beat the Premier League champions in their own back yard.
We arrived in Manchester about an hour and a half before kick off and got parked around a 10 minute walk from the stadium. We met a Man City fan on the way who expressed some concerns about their midweek trip to Abu Dhabi (they only arrived back 24 hours before the match) and foresaw a close tie if Pellegrini failed to pick a strong side. After this chat I found myself feeling pretty confident about our potential to cause an upset, however that soon dissipated when the team sheets were released.
Pellegrini hadn’t gone with a weakened side as many predicted but instead picked a near to full strength unit, Zabaleta, Kompany, Kolarov, Navas, Silva and Aguero all started. For Boro, Dean Whitehead was thrust into a makeshift right back role and Tomas Mejias (who was unconvincing at best early in the season, before being dropped) saw only his second start since August.
Once inside the stadium (after 2 full body searches) I found a surprising scene for a sold out away fixture. No queues for food or for drink. The Etihad boasts an extremely impressive concourse area with numerous food and drink stalls which feature the ability to pay by card, something I haven’t seen at any other ground. It was spacious, well staffed and cleverly designed, a far cry from what I’m used to at the Riverside.
Following a couple of pints and a pie (a necessity at any away fixture) we filtered into the ground to take our seats, or rather stand in front of them. The first 30 minutes of action was terrifying and I found myself fearing the worse. All I wanted before the game was a meaningful goal to celebrate but at this point I found myself hoping to keep the score respectable. City battered us in the early stages, they frequently got into space out wide and forced numerous saves from the stand in keeper, Mejias.
However, after weathering the early storm, there were signs of life for Boro going forward. Tomlin was finding acres of space in front of their defence whilst the tireless running of Adomah, Bamford and Vossen was forcing mistakes from the City backline.
We managed to make it to half time at 0-0 and there was a real feeling amongst the fans that we had a chance in this game. We’d dealt with the inevitable early onslaught and displayed some serious attacking threat. We’d seen several times this season much superior performances after half time and after a Karanka pep talk (bollocking).
This feeling turned to reality just 7 minutes into the second half. Again the work rate of Adomah and Bamford caused problems and after a poor Boyata back pass, Caballero miss-kicked allowing Bamford to slide in and claim an opener. Cue pandemonium in the stands, we were beating Man City at the Etihad, we were beating the CHAMPIONS away.
The following 15 minutes were surreal. City had no answer for Tomlin, who consistently found space between their defence and midfield. He was pulling the strings but the hard work of Adomah, Bamford and Vossen caused City all kinds of problems. It isn’t exaggerating to say we could easily have scored 3 or 4 more goals. Leadbitter had a great effort, that was destined for the bottom corner blocked, by Boyata. Tomlin threaded a perfect through ball to Adomah whose attempted lob was saved. Vossen found space at the back post and volleyed goalwards only to once again see Caballero make a good stop.
Then the moment of magic (I’ve watched this video an obscene number of times), a piece of skill that exemplified the game Lee Tomlin had experienced. The ball reached him with his back to goal, seemingly going nowhere, tightly marked by Vincent Kompany. A lightning quick turn dragged the ball past a baffled Kompany in Bergkamp-esque fashion. Then with a delicate flick of the outside of his right boot, he beat Caballero in the Manchester City goal. Only to see the ball ricochet back off the post, roll agonizingly across the line and out for a goal kick. It deserved a goal, he deserved a goal but alas the Football God’s decided otherwise.
After that came the cavalry. Fernandinho, Lampard and Dzeko were all introduced off the bench and City hammered at the doors of the stout Boro defence. Ayala and Gibson were man mountains at the back, every cross that came in was cleared away, every attempted through ball was intercepted, every hopeful long ball headed into the stratosphere. They never even looked like breaking down the Boro barrier.
That was until the final ten minutes when a Lampard shot deflected off Clayton and, in what seemed like slow motion, headed toward the top corner only to come back off the inside of the post. Sighs of relief all around.
Soon after came the ultimate moment of euphoria. Boro found a way to get the ball forward to Bamford, who touched the ball past a City defender and was scythed down. The fans screamed foul, but those screams soon turned to cheers as Kike stepped onto the ball and swept it into the bottom corner.
Truth be told. I don’t remember much of what happened after that up until the final whistle. Looking around me and seeing thousands of Boro fans applauding, cheering, crying was incredible. Smiles all around. Their heroes on the pitch below celebrating. Scenes like I’ve never seen before, sheer joy, sheer disbelief, sheer pride. Up the Boro.