Matt Crooks hadn’t just been dreaming about this very moment all week. He’d dreamt about it throughout his childhood. Stood with his arms raised aloft in front of thousands of fans at Old Trafford with a beaming smile after securing a monumental victory.
Had the midfielder, who was released by Man United when he was 14, visualised every night before he went to bed as a kid of that moment coming in the green of Middlesbrough’s away strip rather than the red of Manchester United?
No and even as a key part of Boro’s side now as a 28-year-old, he certainly wouldn’t of imagined this week that those celebrations would’ve come after converting a controversial equaliser in a game that saw Cristiano Ronaldo miss a penalty and Boro squeeze every last drip of cup magic from a Fourth Round tie that will live forever.
Neither could Sol Bamba have imagined 18 months ago, after being diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, that he would play football again. Never mind helping his new side beat a star-studded Manchester United in their own backyard by lashing a penalty into the bottom corner.
And in truth, the majority of Middlesbrough fans wouldn’t have been able to imagine that OUR team would topple Man U when Ralf Rangnick named his team prior to kick-off. Maguire, Varane, Shaw, Pogba, Sancho, Rashford, Bruno Fernandes and arguably the greatest player of all time Cristiano Ronaldo.
They were not going to let Boro have an easy night against the reserves. This was United at their best and for 45 minutes they threatened to blow Chris Wilder’s team away.
There’s no doubt that Boro rode their luck and then some last night. On any other night, United would have been out of sight going into half-time. Sancho clipped the crossbar minutes into the game after a mix up between Joe Lumley and Dael Fry and the world’s most famous team didn’t let up.
It felt like the occasion was too much for Middlesbrough during the first half. We couldn’t get any momentum going, the ball wasn’t sticking to Balogun and Sporar up front and Man United came in waves.
The experience and class of Varane and Maguire cut out so many of the passing options that Boro have been exploiting in the final third under Chris Wilder. Pogba breezed round Old Trafford and the attacking quartet of Bruno, Sancho, Rashford and Ronaldo clicked through the gears.
There was no surprise when Dijksteel slipped and brought down Pogba to give away a penalty because it felt like that kind of night. The bright lights and big stage of the “Theatre of Dreams” looked to be too much.
As Ronaldo stepped up, we prepared for a “Siuu” and a very, very long night. That was until United’s behemoth blazed the penalty wide. There would be no stupid Siuuing for Ronny boy.
Sancho did break the deadlock shortly after and only the offside flag spared Joe Lumley’s blushes after letting Rashford’s shot fly underneath him. Somehow United only entered the break with a one goal lead.
Even as the second half started, it didn’t look like Boro had. The same sense of being overwhelmed by the occasion was still washing over them and the outcome of the game felt like a formality until Duncan Watmore was introduced.
Watmore, who was with Crooks for a time in the youth ranks at United, came on and brought every ounce of the newfound spirit that has pushed Chris Wilder’s side on in nearly all of the gaffer’s first 13 games in charge. This is a public service announcement, Chris Wilder’s Resilient Reds have entered the building.
Watmore’s impact was almost immediate, minutes after coming on, when he controlled Isaiah Jones’s beautifully delicate cross in the United box with his hand. He lofted the ball across Dean Henderson’s goal and Matt Crooks dived in to put the ball in the net.
The players celebrated but many Boro fans didn’t. It was clear and obvious that Watmore had handled the ball and with VAR in play at Old Trafford the goal would be ruled out.
Except it wasn’t. Somehow, some way we absolutely fucking blagged an equaliser. I know there’s a new rule about goalscoring actions having to follow the handball incident and the argument that it wasn’t deliberate but if that had been against us, we’d of all been livid.
But it wasn’t so I COULDN’T GIVE TWO FUCKS MATE.
Boro, despite improving in the second half, still have to pay tribute to the football gods today. How Bruno Fernandes didn’t smash the ball into Lumley’s net after the keeper decided to lay him off, we’ll never know.
We’ll also never know why Anthony Elanga, with the freedom of Old Trafford, decided to direct his header in the final minutes straight down Lumley’s throat. Glad he did, though.
Into extra-time, it was Boro who took the game to a United side that were significantly worse off after making a number of substitutions. There was no need to fear an aging Juan Mata, Fred and Phil Jones.
Aaron Connolly could and probably should have knocked his chance past Henderson in the second period of extra-time but we were sent to penalties instead.
For all of the genuine feeling that the lads had done us proud no matter the outcome, there was a sense of pressure or a need to score for each player that stepped up last night for the Boro.
Paddy McNair, the one ex-United man that actually played games at Old Trafford which seemed to go under the radar in the build up, was “home” again after a journey that’s taken him to both the SMBs and Boro. He set the tone.
Martin Payero, who has struggled to cement a place in the team, has to keep in a good headspace and stay confident as he adjusts to English football. A giant wave of relief washed over the away end and the pubs back home when his penalty slipped under Dean Henderson.
Jonny Howson, for as much as he’s the captain of this club and closing in on making more appearances for Boro than for any other team in his career, is a Leeds boy at heart. He loved being able to give it the big’un to the Stretford End after dispatching his spot-kick.
Marcus Tavernier, the Marmite of Middlesbrough with so many detractors at the moment, could not afford to be the one who missed. He had a big set of bollocks to step up and he led the celebrations minutes later in front of the away end. The kid loves this football club.
Sol Bamba, after battling his way back from cancer and knowing nobody would’ve fancied him as he started the long walk up from the halfway line, hit one of the best penalties of the shooutout.
Duncan Watmore with his links to United, his recovery from career threatening injury and the competition he now faces for a first team spot, could’ve crumbled. Instead, the softly-spoken striker had ice in his veins.
Dael Fry, the local hero who proved last night as he put the clamps on Ronaldo that he belongs in the Premier League, might have missed on any other night. We’ve seen it so many times in football, in the cruellest way to lose it’s often the one who it hurts the most who misses. Not Our Dael.
Then there was Lee Peltier. 35-year-old unfashionable utility man Lee Peltier from Liverpool. He nearly took the roof off the net with his kick.
For all of that pressure and those underlying storylines, it never felt in doubt that we would win when Anthony Elanga went to take his kick. Watch it back, it’s obvious he’s missing. It’s not because he’s a poor player. If anything, he could go on to have a brighter career than any of the players who scored for Boro last night.
He just crumbled, as so many have, in the face of Middlesbrough Football Club at full pelt.
It wasn’t Manchester United against Middlesbrough in that penalty shootout, it was Teesside vs. The World. That Spirit of Teesside that makes this team, this club, this town unstoppable.
It’s that backs to the wall, undeniable passion and desire to prove the entire world wrong that powers our greatest moments.
After being repeatedly beaten down in the media as a terrible place to live, where crime and poverty are high and always being told “it’s grim up north”, we level the playing field by lashing out as one irresistible Red Army. It’s a feeling and a force that can’t be halted.
It’s that secret weapon that Chris Wilder and the boys are going to need for the rest of the season to make nights like yesterday a regular occurrence and not a showpiece occasion. The lads who were involved last night have etched their name into Boro folklore forever but their stories don’t stop here.
We want to go to Old Trafford next time as equals not a fiery team from the league below. We want to be going to Chelsea, City and Liverpool to test ourselves against the best and we want to go and shove the Geordie bastards new found riches down their throats.
They can’t do that without us. The Riverside has been rocking since Wilder arrived. The bond that was broken and lifeless between supporters and players for a long time has been shocked into life by the new manager and it hasn’t been stronger since the last time we were promoted.
So for everyone that blagged a ticket last night or revelled in the scenes at home or in the pubs, get yourself to the Riverside. It’s easy for the lads to do it at Old Trafford when the occasion gives everyone an extra 25%.
It’s the Tuesday nights against West Brom, the journeys to Barnsley and Millwall and the matchups with Huddersfield and Hull where we need to be the ones to give them the extra momentum. Dig out your scarves, your retro shirts and get on the Wilder Express. It’s leaving the station at some speed.
Something special is happening at the Boro. There is a storm coming and it’s tinged with Red and White.
Photo Credits: Middlesbrough F.C., Tom Banks @banks_photo