Steve McClaren ended yesterday as he began it: a man alone. Stepping reluctantly towards the centre circle of The Riverside Stadium at 10pm last night the Middlesbrough manager looked every inch the isolated figure who earlier had been cast adrift by the Football Association, but for one telling difference. He was soaked in acclaim and acceptance.
Two months after a season ticket was thrown in his face in disgust McClaren's name filled the air on a night of transformations on Teesside. He had just become the first man to lead Middlesbrough to a European final, the most deflating morning of his managerial life fading into an exhilarating high. His players, just as they had done in the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup, had defied the odds to complete another four-goal comeback in the semi-final against a talented but ultimately brittle Steaua Bucharest, and while McClaren was unwilling to share their limelight on a merited lap of honour his fans made sure he knew where he was wanted.
"I share their disappointment when we are not winning and also their euphoria when we are," McClaren said. "This is a historic night and it was important to share it with the fans and the players, who were unbelievable."
Sven Goran Eriksson's assistant would not comment on his likely failure to become the Swede's successor or Luiz Felipe Scolari's elevation as heir apparent. "I am not going to comment on that until something is finalised," he said. Thatdid not prevent the Boro chairman, Steve Gibson, from voicing his displeasure, however. "I am disappointed for Steve," he said. "I know he wanted the job. I'm an Englishman and I will reserve my judgement on that appointment." And we should reserve fulsome praise for Middlesbrough.
The torment of the morning's news paled into insignificance for McClaren as Steaua swiftly established a two-goal lead to put the tie seemingly beyond Boro. Nicolae Dica added to his first leg winner with a cool, close range finish in the 16th minute before Dorin Goian converted from a scrambled corner to dissipate the frenzied atmosphere.
In danger of losing a second semi-final in five days Boro now needed four goals to progress, a task they had managed against Basle in the quarters. The gung-ho mentality again brought out the best in the players and manager as McClaren abandoned his five-man midfield and committed to attack. Substitute Massimo Maccarone, who sealed victory in the dying seconds against the Swiss, stirred memories of the Riverside's last European night when he converted Mark Viduka's neat pass in the 33rd minute. Not again, surely?
The dream appeared increasingly remote as a series of openings went begging but when Viduka got the better of Steaua keeper Alberto Fernandes to head home Stewart Downing's cross the contest turned. "The equaliser knocked them back but we had the momentum by then," admitted McClaren.
"We only need two," came the home cry, and the deficit reduced further as Downing drew a low save from Fernandes only for Chris Riggott to convert the rebound in the 73rd minute. The script for Basle II was unfolding to perfection and, incredibly, given an identical ending when Maccarone threw himself at another immaculate Downing cross to head in the fourth in the 89th minute. Steaua players collapsed en masse. Boro, and McClaren, leapt into the Uefa Cup final against Sevilla.
Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Jones; Riggott, Southgate (Maccarone, 26), Queudrue; Parnaby, Rochemback, Boateng, Downing, Taylor (Yakubu, 55); Viduka, Hasselbaink (Ehiogu, 90). Substitutes not used: Knight (gk), Parlour, Bates, Cattermole.
Steaua Bucharest (4-4-2): Fernandes; Ogararu, Goian, Ghionea, Marin; Oprita (Baciu, 81), Radoi, Lovin, Bostina (Nesu, 87); Iacob (Balan, 67), Dica. Substitutes not used: Gernea (gk), Simion, Cristocea, Cristea.
Referee: Lubos Michel (Slovakia).