SPORTbible posted a tweet a couple of days ago that really got me thinking. It was one of those daft questions that most accounts use to generate engagement that I usually scroll past and barely register but this one caught my attention.
The question, accompanied by a photo of a blue button, was “You press the blue button and one game is erased from history. Which game?”.
Now, in my 26 years as a Boro fan there’d be plenty to choose from, whether it’d be the play-off final defeat to Norwich, being relegated at West Ham or losing to the Geordies a couple of weeks beforehand, a number of horrible defeats in the Championship to the likes of Rotherham or Barnsley (can we just erase Oakwell?) or losing to Burton in the League Cup.
However, there’s one game that psychologically effected me and altered my experience as a football fan more than any other. It’s a game that is burned into my subconscious, that slowly seeps back to the forefront of my mind’s eye to wash away large parts of growing optimism whenever Boro go on a roll, acting as a warning sign against ever feeling true joy.
That game was the FA Cup quarter-final loss to Cardiff in 2008 that stamped out my childhood dreams.
Going into that game in 2008, which was played out in front of a packed out Riverside, the Boro were fighting for survival in the Premier League with the team sitting in 19th.
However, the consensus was that Gareth Southgate’s side should have more than enough to deal with Cardiff – a midtable Championship team with a number of over the hill veterans like Peter Enckelman, Gavin Rae and former Teesside favourite Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.
In fact, after the previous day had seen Portsmouth and Barnsley shock Man United and Chelsea respectively, talk wasn’t restricted to the match in question or even the possibility of a trip to the newly opened Wembley. There were plenty of fans and pundits that thought Boro had one hand on the FA Cup itself including the idiot typing this all out.
As a 12-year-old at the time, I’d only ever known glory and success as a Boro fan. I grew up on Juninho, Hasselbaink, Mark Viduka, Gareth Southgate, Schwarzer, Ugo Ehiogu, Downing, Boateng, Yakubu, Zenden and Mendieta.
We’d won a cup and got to the UEFA Cup final. We’d regularly beaten Man United, Chelsea and Arsenal. Even that season, as we battled relegation, had seen us beat Arsenal and draw with Liverpool at home. Those crazy European comebacks had shrouded my pre-teen brain in a protective film that promised that no matter how bad things got, we’d somehow bounce back.
Now that I’m 26 and battle-hardened, we could be playing Marske United and I’d still be nervous about an upset but then I was clouded by the love of football, childhood innocence and Premier League arrogance.
Despite a significant drop-off in form as Gareth Southgate transitioned from the pitch to the dugout, I and many others had only known sporting glory, especially in the Riverside era. As the North Stand ticked over the card display, it felt like a formality that Stewart Downing, Robert Huth, Tuncay, Mark Schwarzer and record signing Afonso Alves would help us onto some more success.
9 minutes into the game, Peter Whittingham curled a fantastic goal past Schwarzer and the Bluebirds never looked back while my innocence came crashing down around me. A short time later, when Boro were playing in the Championship, I realised that Whittingham was a masterful footballer but at the time I couldn’t believe that a CHAMPIONSHIP player had managed to do something like that against the mighty Boro.
The late Whittingham’s wand of a left foot was in action soon again when he wrapped a free-kick into the Boro box and onto the head of Roger Johnson who directed his header past Schwarzer.
The ensuing chant of Johnson’s name to Pigbag from the Cardiff fans is one of the reasons I’ve come to dislike Boro’s “anthem” and genuinely hate the lazy, bi-seasonal adoption of it for one of our players. It lodges every inch of Johnson’s gangly frame into my head.
The second-half wasn’t much better and many fans around me and my Dad in the West Stand (‘ere I was posh me) left before Cardiff had even made a substitution. The game ended 2-0 and I’ve been dealing with an unhealthy feeling of trepidation towards any fixture where Boro are the “favoured” side for 14 years since.
That was further compounded by relegation, the struggles under Strachan and the annual collapses under Mogga. Hearing “The Mighty Boro we’re going up” sung in 2016 made me feel physically ill until Dimi caught the ball and the whistle blew against Brighton.
Even if we’re 1-0 up in the final minute on Saturday, any chants of Que Sera will set me off and bring the images of Cardiff’s black and gold kits flowing back out onto the Riverside pitch to act as a final obstacle to overcome.
The thought of that game may be a demon that I can never truly exorcise but a victory on Saturday might help. Re-writing the history books and securing the FA Cup would be even better.