One of the most monumental moments in Teesside’s sporting history saw Bruce Rioch’s Second Division strugglers pitted against Graham Taylor’s First Division highflyers Aston Villa in the area final of the now defunct Zenith Data Systems Cup.

Dr Tosh Warwick

Manchester Metropolitan University | Heritage Unlocked

07591093136 |


Having won the first-leg at Villa Park 2-1 courtesy of an early Bernie Slaven goal and a late Mark Brennan blockbuster, Boro needed only to avoid defeat to guarantee a first ever visit to Wembley. Of course, the second leg at Ayresome Park did not go to plan as Stuart Gray struck for the visitors to take the match into extra time. However, a stunning Slaven strike and a late finish by Paul Kerr sent the Holgate End into pandemonium and allowed the red army to dream of Wembley glory.

The following day’s Northern Echo front page featured a photograph of a jubilant Bernie Slaven jumping for you after scoring Boro’s first goal accompanied by the caption ‘Cup glory for Boro’. Amusingly, the Evening Gazette’s front-page headline read ‘WE ALL KNEW YOU’D DO IT’ and featured snaps of gleeful young Boro fans as if it was all a formality. The Gazette hailed the team’s performance as a ‘display of passion and power before the ecstatic fans’ and an interview with manager Rioch captured the spirit of the night:

"This was achieved by a group of young players, the vast majority of whom were born and bred in the area and have died for the cause of Middlesbrough Football Club…I am delighted for all those players and for the chairman and his directors, but I am especially delighted for the supporters. Going to Wembley means so much for them and now everybody can look forward to a tremendous weekend."

Turning to the back page, the headline ‘DREAM COMES TRUE’ summed up the magical night at Ayresome Park. Words of wisdom from Rioch once again dominated as he first hailed Slaven’s strike:

"You can’t underestimate the value of that goal. It was world class…You had to be out there in the heat of the moment, with the ball dropping at your feet in a crowded goalmouth, to appreciate the brilliance of the finish…There’s no reason why Bernie can’t score World Cup goals like last night’s."

Beyond praise for the Wolfman, Rioch commended the team effort and declared “I’m proud of every single player and I’m delighted for everybody connected with the club that we’re on our way to Wembley.” There was a sense of relief from captain Tony Mowbray who confessed: “Naturally, when Villa scored, I thought it was a case of here we go again.”

The Gazette’s sports reporter Eric Paylor left no doubt about the scale of the achievement and captured the typical Boro tension of the night:

It’s taken 67 frustrating years of broken dreams for Boro finally to build the way to Wembley. And even then, they needed a goal of stunning quality from Bernie Slaven to finally lay the bogy to rest in a night of high tension...That vital goal, in the 112th minute of the first period of extra-time, transformed Ayresome Park and suddenly gave Boro control of a game which seemed to be slipping away from them.

Progress to Wembley would prove bittersweet for a number of the men behind the Boro’s ZDS cup run. Trevor Putney suffered a broken leg early in the game and had to follow his teammates’ progress via the Ayresome cheers he could hear from a bed in nearby Middlesbrough General Hospital.

Two further cruel blows would follow for Tony Mowbray and Bruce Rioch, two lynchpins of Boro’s rise from the ashes in 1986. Boro captain Tony Mowbray would also miss the Wembley Final through injury, although was afforded the honour of leading the team out at Wembley. An even worse fate befell Bruce Rioch, who was sacked just weeks before the Final with Boro struggling against relegation. He was replaced in the Boro hot seat and Wembley dugout by sidekick Colin Todd.

The 25th March 1990 Wembley clash against Chelsea was the first all-seater final at Wembley and the 76,369 gate was larger than that season’s League Cup Final the following month. Over 35,000 Teessiders made the pilgrimage up Wembley Way. The day was not to have a dream ending however as the men in red fell at the final hurdle. Tony Dorigo, who missed out on joining the rest of the England squad recording World in Motion that day, scored a first-half free kick that ultimately secured a 1-0 victory for the Stamford Bridge outfit.

Dorigo’s name still haunts generations of older supporters just as those of Emile Heskey, Steve Claridge and Roberto Di Matteo bring flashbacks of crushed dreams for younger generations. In a recent discussion with Dorigo, the left-back revealed that to this day he is still subject to friendly banter from Boro fans referencing the goal that shattered Teesside dreams. Despite not taking home the ZDS Cup, there was praise in The Northern Echo for Boro and their supporters for providing a fantastic account of the club and the town, and the day still holds a special place in the hearts of many Boro fans.