Why The Europa/UEFA Cup Matters...

Our Johnny still gets tears in his eyes when he remembers Middlesbrough's finest moment. For fans of such clubs, the Europa offers a sexy holiday romance...

Last Updated: 27/11/13 at 16:21 Post Comment

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Thursday sees the welcome return of the Europa League. I say it's welcome against a background of massive indifference. The long-held feeling that it is mere detritus in the football calendar has not gone away. Some of this is because of its unwieldy league structure and some of it is patently because in an era when too many are keen to suck up to the elites, the Europa is stuffed full of clubs that the casual football supporter hasn't heard of and who are less than brilliant.

This attitude may well be more prevalent in England than elsewhere in Europe but UEFA rather like the competition and are not about to scrap it. In fact, from 2015 the winner will be entered into the following season's Champions League. But I suspect this will not shift the attitude that it is a kind of losers cup about which there is little interest...at least until the final.

This is a real shame because the beauty of a second European tournament has always been to give the non-elite clubs a chance to achieve something outside of the domestic leagues; to enjoy a little bit of extra spice and variety in their football diet.

Some of the finest British football moments of the last ten years have come in the Europa League and its predecessor, the UEFA Cup. Fulham's 4-1 demolition of Juventus, Rangers reaching the final, Rafa Benitez's Chelsea's extraordinary win last year and in 2006, Middlesbrough reaching the final after achieving two of the most extraordinary comebacks anyone will ever see. They were so astonishing I've put them into a new novel I've written called 'Teesside Steal'.

In the quarter-final, 2-0 down to Basel after the away leg, Boro took to the Riverside pitch needing to score three but soon were a goal down and having to score four to progress. It may seem like a fairytale now, but back then Boro were a decent side with the likes of Mark Viduka and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbuttocks amongst their ranks.

As the normally useless Massimo Maccarone scored the fourth goal in the 90th minute to seal victory, no-one who danced like a fool that night thought it could ever happen again.

But it did.

The semi-final saw us drawn against Steaua Bucharest. We lost the away leg 1-0 but it felt like we were still in it until the always-hapless Brad Jones had spilled a couple in the first 24 minutes of the home game and we were two down. With captain Gareth Southgate off injured, replaced by the still normally useless Massimo Maccarone and needing to score four again to win, first Viduka got one back, then two, then Chris Riggott got a third and then by God no-one doubted it was our damn moment in history.

The stars had briefly aligned, all was right with the world for one shard of our Teesside existence. With a minute to go, a Stewart Downing cross found the head of the bald Italian striker. It was one of those moments in football when you see what has happened a split-second before it actually does. Somehow your brain slips its moorings in time and space and even before its hit the back of the net, you know it's a f**king goal. Seemingly in slow motion, Maccarone rose to connect with the ball and put it past the Steaua keeper. If you could have put a line on the joy this simple act released it could have briefly lit up the world.

All across the world, the Teesside diaspora collectively delivered a primal scream into a dark Teesside night sky; an invocation to all those who had lived and died watching the Boro and seen us win nothing, who could never have dreamed of Boro in Europe, let alone winning a semi-final.

And it remains in our collective Teesside DNA. In our hearts, in our minds, in our tears, in our f**king blood and sp*nk. It is our stellar triumph in a cold world and the heat from it still warms. Even recalling this has brought tears of joy to my eyes once again; the emotion still raw, still golden, still magnificent. It means everything.

This is what the UEFA Cup as was, now the Europa League, is about. It's a place for sides like the Boro to have their shining moment and it means so damn much to those clubs. The cold, grey winters may have returned to Middlesbrough FC but those moments from 2006 will always be a brilliant sun to warm us through harsher climes. As exciting, glamorous and thrilling as a holiday romance with someone who would usually out of your league. Those who decry the competition don't understand what those days means to us and how bloody important they are.

So you might not have hard of clubs like Chornomorets or Shakhtyor Karagandy or Tottenham Hotspur and the games might not be between the finest of the finest in Europe but that doesn't matter to me. The Europa League offers the real gritty glamour of European football: a place where there is no entitlement, no pretension, no ambition other than to have a good time and enjoy whatever the hell happens, because it might be the only glory we ever have.

The Europa League: it matters more because there's not money on it; there's something much more important at stake - hope and glory.

Get yourself a copy of Johnny's fantastic new crime novel ' Teesside Steal' a story of upbringing, inheritance and UEFA Cup football here and go here to 'like' his Facebook page. Or you can follow him on Twitter here.

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