Leicester City 1
Claridge 100 Middlesbrough 0
After extra time
The late blossoming of Steve Claridge's extraordinary career found full bloom at Hillsborough last night, as the veteran striker won Leicester their first trophy for 33 years.
Claridge's goal, after 100 minutes of the Coca-Cola Cup final replay, also condemned Middlesbrough to, at best, another month of waiting for silverware after 121 barren years.
It could well be longer. Boro, who are back at Hillsborough to meet Chesterfield in the FA Cup semi-final in six days' time, will find it hard to get over this defeat. Ten days ago they were within two minutes of winning the competition at Wembley - now they have just losers' medals to remember their Cup run by.
Few neutrals will remember the final, it was epic only in terms of length. This match was better than the first game, but after a bright start it gradually deteriorated as Leicester's relentless endeavour squeezed the life out of Middlesbrough's foreign flair.
Not that that will worry Leicester, even if Pontus Kamark, who again man-marked Juninho, went into the match declaring such a practice to be immoral. Their fans will retort that, when you lack millions, you make up for it with heart.
Claridge, whose last-minute goal won Leicester promotion in May, epitomises that mood. Having squatted in a directors' flat at Cambridge, trained in dog muck at Aldershot and gambled away his pay-off after being rejected as a teenager, he appreciates what he has now. So do Muzzy Izzet, edged out by the foreign invasion at Chelsea, Steve Walsh and Neil Lennon, who have suffered potentially crippling injuries, and Simon Grayson and Garry Parker, whose family lives have been marked by sadness and worry. Middlesbrough are not dilettantes, but such spirit is hard to quench. They do have some with a similar passion, Juninho, a millionaire but also a worker, stood in disbelief at the end, barely able to comprehend his team's fate as opposition and foe consoled him.
The Brazilian had a very quiet match. Bryan Robson had pushed him forward to play alongside Craig Hignett in a Christmas-tree formation behind Fabrizio Ravanelli in an attempt to thwart Leicester's man-marking. For a while it worked, with Leicester effectively playing five at the back. Emerson enjoyed the resultant space in midfield, while Hignett proved hard to shackle.
Hignett had a powerful ninth-minute shot deflected wide and only telling tackles by Walsh on him and Spencer Prior on Juninho kept Middlesbrough at bay. But gradually Leicester fought their way back. Parker's passing, aided by the willing running of his cohort Lennon, gave Heskey a platform to harry the Boro defence. After 25 minutes he and Claridge set up Parker, whose shot from just outside the area was shovelled by Ben Roberts into the path of Mike Whitlow. However, the defender could only lash the ball wide of the far post.
Heskey then just failed to control a glorious 50-yard pass from Parker, Lennon shot wide, then fed Heskey who shot past Roberts only to see the ball rebound back from the far post.
Boro responded after the break with Ravanelli setting up Juninho for a 20-yard shot which dipped just over the bar. Middlesbrough continued to control the second half, penning Leicester back but creating few chances. At this stage City were creating nothing, and the chant that rolled down the red and white bedecked Kop of "Boring, Boring Leicester" seemed harsh but fair.
Leicester did respond in the best possible fashion, carving out a series of half-chances, though only Claridge's header, seven minutes from the end of normal time, brought Roberts into action.
They began the extra period the brighter, Grayson and Lennon having chances before Claridge struck. Whitlow's deep free-kick was won by Steve Walsh and the unmarked Claridge swivelled to volley in.
The Leicester fans went delirious with joy. It was the first time Boro had been behind in more than three and a half hours of the tie, and within a minute they could have been level. Emerson, bursting from midfield, played a one-two with Hignett, he shot from near the penalty spot but Kasey Keller made an outstanding save.
He also saved from Alan Moore, then watched with relief as Ravanelli's feared left foot for once misfired from inside the box. It was to prove Middlesbrough's last chance. They now have to lift themselves for a hugely important relegation battle at Sunderland this weekend, while Leicester can start thinking of playing in Europe for the first time since a brief foray in the Cup-Winners' Cup in 1961. This competition has its detractors - but you won't find any in Leicester today.
Leicester City (4-1-3-2): Keller; Grayson, Walsh, Prior, Whitlow (Lawrence, 109); Kamark; Izzet, Parker, Lennon; Claridge (Robins, 117), Heskey. Substitute not used: Poole (gk).
Middlesbrough (4-3-2-1): Roberts; Cox (Moore 105), Pearson, Festa (Vickers, 76), Kinder; Mustoe, Emerson, Blackmore; Juninho, Hignett (Beck, 105); Ravanelli.
Referee: M Bodenham (Looe, Cornwall).
More reports, results, page 29
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