In his previous sporting existence, as a rising young judoka in Holland - at least three-time champion of Limburg ("maybe more, I can't remember") - Boudewijn Zenden never suffered any significant physical damage. "Nothing like this," he said. "This is the first time for me." With his right hand, the black-belt-turned-winger touched the red plastic covering protecting his left forearm. Zenden played with a broken wrist against Banik Ostrava in the Uefa Cup on Thursday. Not that you would have guessed it from the fighting performance he produced in the Bazaly Stadium.
With seven players on the injured list, it was always going to be a backs-to-the-wall job for Middlesbrough, even before they were reduced to 10 men for the final 36 minutes. They emerged with a 1-1 draw, and a 4-1 aggregate victory, Zenden typifying the spirit in Steve McClaren's team.
The Dutchman started as a stand-in striker (with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Mark Viduka and Joseph-Desiré Job all among the absentees), troubling the Ostrava defence as Szilard Nemeth's industrious striking foil. He finished as an emergency left-back, after the dismissal of Franck Queudrue, making a vital goal-line clearance before James Morrison's breakaway injury-time goal.
The battling off the pitch, by supporters of both clubs in an unsegregated section of the ground, was something Middlesbrough could have done without in their first competitive venture on the European mainland (other than Anglo-Italian Cup duty, that is). The combative qualities shown by their makeshift team were a different matter - not least by their Dutch jack-of-all-trades with his broken wrist.
"It happened two weeks ago at Everton," Zenden reflected, explaining his unlucky break. "I attacked the ball at a free-kick. I was a bit too kamikaze. It's a little bit painful, but this covering allows me to play on. It's no problem."
The problem for Middlesbrough, with their lingering injury worries, is that their next game happens to be at Old Trafford this afternoon. The Teessiders might have qualified for the group stage of the Uefa Cup but, given their lack of first-choice first-team players, an afternoon back on home soil in the Theatre of Dreams is not exactly an enticing prospect - especially if the name of Manchester United's midweek hat-trick hero happens to appear on the home teamsheet.
"What Wayne Rooney has done speaks for itself," Zenden said. "Sometimes you forget that he's only 18; he plays that well at the top level, with so much confidence. The fact that he's at United will help him get even better. He's got great players around him who have already seen everything at the highest level. And, of course, Alex Ferguson has worked with a lot of young players and brought them through. I think he's at the right club."
Zenden appreciates only too well that Sir Alex Ferguson's former right-hand man is bringing through talented young players of his own at Middlesbrough. In addition to a squad of FA Youth Cup winners which includes the 18-year-old Morrison, McClaren also has the 20-year-old Stewart Downing, who filled the left-wing berth with distinction in Ostrava and who has been pressing hard for Zenden's favoured position.
"I think Middlesbrough should be really proud of the fact that they have a player like Stewart in the first team," Zenden maintained. "He's a good example for the youth players. He shows that it's possible to come through and make it to the first team. James Morrison is a very good player as well. It's good that he and Stewart are taking their chances to show what they can do. It's important that they keep it going, too, and make sure that it's even more difficult for the manager to pick his team."
Zenden himself has only been a Middlesbrough player for 12 months - on loan from Chelsea since September last year, on the club staff since the summer. Already, though, he has gained an iconic place in the club's annals. It was his penalty against Bolton in the Carling Cup final in February that earned Middlesbrough their first trophy of first-class value in their 128-year history.
"You sometimes run into people in the street and they say, 'Oh thank you very much for what you did'," Zenden mused. "It's good to hear that. It's very nice. We've actually put something down for the club. We've made history. But that's something that happened last season. We want to do something even better this time.
"People are looking differently at Middlesbrough now - with the fact that we won the cup last season, and that we've brought five players in who all have a good reputation and a good name. There are certain expectations now. The eyes are on Middlesbrough, which is a good thing, but there is still a way to go if you want to compare us with the big teams."
At 28, Zenden knows all about the big teams and the big occasions. Before he arrived at Chelsea, as a £7.5m signing in the summer of 2001, he spent three seasons with Barcelona. He played for the Catalan club in the semi-finals of the Champions' League in 2000. They were knocked out by Valencia, losing 4-1 in the Mestalla and winning 2-1 in the Nou Camp. Gaizka Mendieta scored in both legs for Valencia. On Thursday night he was on bench duty for Middlesbrough in Ostrava, having been out for a month with a calf problem.
Zenden also played in a memorable Champions' League match for Barcelona at Old Trafford in September 1998. They came from 2-0 behind at half-time to draw 3-3. But United did end up lifting the cup in the Nou Camp the following May.
Still, Zenden was a winner with Middlesbrough at Old Trafford in February, a 3-2 Premiership triumph by the Teessiders. "We played very well that day," the Dutchman reflected. "We will have to play well again to get another good result this time. It will be a big test for us... another big test."Reuse content