Boro ready to make giant stride forward

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The Independent Football

The hope on Teesside yesterday was that the Leap Year cup final win over Bolton would result in a giant stride forward for Middlesbrough's football team.

As one old adage goes, the first trophy is the hardest to win and, after 128 years of trying, Boro are not likely to disagree.

"When I arrived I said to the chairman to go to the next level you have to win things," Steve McClaren said. "We can't stand still. We need to progress and this victory is a great stepping stone to do that."

The manager's words were echoed by his chairman, Steve Gibson, and the Boro players. "Now it's down to us to take it a stage further," said Gareth Southgate, the captain. "We're now a team that's won a trophy and qualified for Europe."

Gibson, who has bankrolled Boro's recovery from the days when the receivers locked the gates at their old Ayresome Park ground, said: "Our fans have had a lot of frustrations but we have ended it now and I really believe the club can kick on from here."

On the other hand, yet another old adage asserts: getting to the top is easy - the hard part is staying there. It is certainly true that the Football League Cup has not, in recent years, been a platform for further success.

Liverpool's victory in 2001 was the first of a five-trophy haul that year, but the honour Merseyside craves - the championship - continues to elude them. By 2003 the League Cup was a consolation prize, even if defeating Manchester United made it all the sweeter. Liverpool's 1995 win, meanwhile, did nothing to save Roy Evans.

Of the other victors in the last decade, neither Tottenham (1999) nor, after promising much, Blackburn Rovers (2002) have progressed to greater glory. Aston Villa (1994 and 1996) and Leicester City (1997 and 2000) managed to repeat their League Cup success but have otherwise remained, respectively, mid-table and yo-yo clubs.

Chelsea (1998) have gone on to greater things but the previous year's FA Cup victory was their breakthrough. Not since 1978, when Nottingham Forest followed League Cup success with the title and two European Cups, did the competition prove a platform.

Middlesbrough's difficulty is that Arsenal and Manchester United - and to a lesser extent Chelsea and Liverpool - have a stranglehold on domestic honours. Between them this quartet have won every Premiership and FA Cup since Blackburn and Everton briefly usurped them in 1995.

Boro recognise that they are not likely to upset this cartel in the near future, not, at least, in the league, but there are fresh targets. The Uefa Cup promises a first foray into the European arena.

With the expansion of the Champions' League, the competition has become weaker. Boro may lack European experience collectively but Gaizka Mendieta, Gareth Southgate and Juninho will be the match of most opponents. They could be dark horse contenders.

Domestically Boro will seek to overtake Newcastle United, who may be stagnating, as the North-east's premier team. Sunday's win will make it easier to attract and keep good players.

Success, of course, can bring problems. Gibson admitted McClaren may attract offers from elsewhere. "I'm worried about losing Steve in the future but that's football," Gibson said. "Steve's ambitious and the right club at the right time may or may not come in for him.

"We want to be successful but we're realistic as well. We can't compete with England, we can't compete with Manchester United and maybe Arsenal. Beyond that I think we can compete with anyone."

Boro will celebrate their success with an open-top bus parade next Sunday. It will be a deserved reward for supporters who, with their Bolton counterparts, made Cardiff a joyous place to be on Sunday, again begging the question whether the new Wembley is required.