Although an early start was required for me to travel up to Middlesbrough for the game, it couldn’t dim the feeling of excitement inside me for the day ahead. I arrived in Middlesbrough around 1 o’clock and the first thing that struck me about the place was the sheer industrial scale. I was keen to arrive early to Teesside to soak up some of the atmosphere before the game, and to get a good look at the ground before the masses descended upon it.
After a quick sandwich to stem my hunger, I began the 20 minute walk from the centre of town to the Riverside stadium. I strolled leisurely past a pub named Doctor Browns which was teaming with both sets of supporters. Mingling and intertwining in a small sea of red and yellow shirts, scarfs and other merchandise. It was great to see no animosity whatsoever between the fans. Shortly after I realised I had no idea where the ground was, I decided to ride the crest of the wave of Boro fans assuming they were heading to the same place as I. Luckily enough they were and after a couple of bizarre, multicoloured tunnels that passed beneath the railway tracks I closed on the ground itself.
As impressive on the inside as it’s outer layer, I found the Riverside Stadium to be a truly modern football ground. The only posts in sight were at either end of the pitch supporting the net. I purchased a programme before entering and began to scrawl through the names on the back. After speaking with a Middlesbrough fan through twitter midweek, I’d learned a fair bit about the season so far and who to look out for on their side. Names such as Victor Valdes, Marten de Roon, Fabio, Ben Gibson, Adam Forshaw and George Friend were names that all came highly recommended, you can imagine my disappointment when only one of these names featured in the starting 11.
My Middlesbrough insider also gave me insight into the fans at the Riverside, stating “the passion from the fans at home as we have had all season, being a season ticket holder it’s great when we go a goal down and the fans get louder rather than having a go, we really do have the best fans in the world!”
As it turns out he was spot on, the boom of the drum in the South Stand brought me to my feet, what followed was pretty much the whole of that stand bellowing out song after song in support of their team. Both sets of fan deserve massive praise as they both backed their team to the hilt throughout the match.
As I stated earlier today, I had my reservations about Middlesbrough’s chances if they chopped and changed too much, so to see the core of their first choice players warming the bench alerted me even more to a potential upset. Oxford United on the other hand fielded their strongest possible 11, seemingly going for the throats of the Premier League team by going 4-4-2, not their usual system.
The game started at a frantic pace with both teams having great chances in the first 5 minutes, firstly Toni Martinez turned sharply with Daniel Ayala marking too tightly to put himself through but could couldn’t finish the move with a goal. At the other end Rudy Gestede, an esteemed player with his head missed a glorious chance when he was presented with a free header at the back post. The early exchanges was followed by an audacious lob attempt from the edge of the area by Grant Leadbitter which very nearly dipped under the bar. Once the game had settled down a little Middlesbrough began to dominate proceedings, Stewart Downing seemingly running the show from the centre of the park. I couldn’t help but feel Oxford weren’t helping themselves due to repeatedly playing long balls up towards their strike force who had two 6foot plus centre halves to deal with. Ayala and Espinosa duly obliged to every long ball and won absolutely everything in terms of aerial duels. Another problem for Oxford was the centre of midfield, with their two former Everton trainees John Lundstram and Ryan Ledson looking outnumbered and slightly out of their depth against Boro’s 3 men in the middle.
Middlesbrough made their dominance pay when Downing was brought down by Chris Maguire for a blatant penalty in the 26th minute. Grant Leadbitter ruthlessly dispatched the resulting penalty in to the roof of the net to give Boro the lead. Barely 5 minutes later The U’s Maguire had a goal disallowed when the officials believed Kane Hemmings to have fouled a Boro defender as the ball passed him. Ultimately Boro made things worse for Oxford by doubling their lead 2 minutes later when Gestede fired in an impressively taken bicycle kick. Boro fired in a few more efforts on Simon Eastwood’s goal in the remaining 10 minutes of the half but the teams went in with Boro leading 2-0. Oxford Winger Rob Hall looked dangerous every time he received the ball which was few and far between in a bleak first half for the U’s.
The second half started in the same vain as the first with an early Oxford chance, proving to Boro that this tie was far from over. Adama Traore created a few openings for himself and Viktor Fischer but neither could find the back of the net. Traore deserves a special mention because every time he touched the ball the sense of anticipation in the crowd went through the roof. Although his end product needs working on, his explosive pace and sheer ambition has the fans on the edge of their seats.
A couple of corners for Oxford in quick succession visibly boosted the players who seemed to gain belief in themselves. Lundstram and Ledson were in the faces of any Boro player in possession and didn’t allow them time or space to string passes together. Rob Hall and Chris Maguire had become increasing involved with Oxford utilising the wings to much better effect in the second period. They got their just rewards when Traore bundled his man over on the edge of the area. Maguire stepped up and effortlessly curled the ball over the wall and into the corner of Brad Guzan’s net. The Oxford fans were still celebrating their first goal when just seconds later Lundstram intercepted in the middle and fed Maguire who’s shot was saved by Guzan only to fall to the waiting Martinez who tapped home to send over 3,000 of the U’s faithful into raptures. The general feeling was there was only one team going to win this game now. Middlesbrough looked all over the place, Oxford had the bit between their teeth and were on Boro players everytime the ball was remotely close.
Cue a shrewd double substitution from Aitor Karanka, off came Traore and Fischer to be replaced by Gaston Ramirez and Christian Stuani. The changes didn’t initially go down well with the Boro faithful but with Traore clearly flagging and Fischer quiet they were the obvious choices to be hooked.
It took Boro 10 minutes to weather the yellow storm, but once they regained composure the tie seemed to be heading to the Kassam Stadium for a replay. Stuani had other ideas though, and after a failed Alvaro Negredo overhead kick the ball fell to the Uruguayan with a knack of scoring crucial goals for the men in red and white, he poked home and the Riverside erupted with joy and relief. Heartbreaking for Oxford who’d made this a fantastic FA Cup tie, but the show must go on.
This tie proved to me that the magic of the FA Cup is well and truly alive, both sets of supporters turned up in fine voice, both sets of players were also fantastic. It was very nearly a tale of two halves but for Oxford it wasn’t to be. Middlesbrough on the other hand march on and into the draw for the Quarter Finals. Huge credit to both managers who set their teams up to win this game, they stalked the touch line throughout the game, cutting lonely figures perched 10 yards ahead of their coaching staff. Michael Appleton very nearly masterminded a win over Premier League opposition but Karanka also had a will to win and the way in which he celebrated the winner proved to me he wants to win this competition.
It’s almost refreshing to see because all we seem to hear in the media these days is “do they need the FA Cup?” Constant fuelling of the fire that devalues England’s finest cup competition titon. While there are teams treating the Cup as seriously as these two today the magic will never die.
All in all I massively enjoyed my day in Middlesbrough and my first visit to the Riverside stadium. I leave with a great feeling towards the fans, football club and town in general. I’ll certainly be back once I’ve achieved my goal of visiting the 92. Thanks for having me and thank you to everyone for taking the time to read my blog. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed it and gained some insight too.