Just because some bloke in blue scored a goal, it doesn’t mean we lost...

Thirty years ago, an army of Boro fans descended on Wembley for our inaugural appearance at the Home of Football in the Zenith Data Systems Cup Final against Chelsea.

Dr Tosh Warwick

Manchester Metropolitan University | Heritage Unlocked

07591093136 | t.warwick@mmu.ac.uk


The Road to Wembley

Boro’s road to Wembley started with a 3-1 win over Port Vale at Ayresome Park in front of just 6,691 before a 4-1 success over Sheffield Wednesday and a 1-0 derby win against old foes Newcastle United set up a two-legged Northern Final against Aston Villa. The 4-2 aggregate success over Graham Taylor’s side, including a 2-1 home win after extra time in one of Ayresome Park’s most famous nights, brought jubilee for the majority of the 20,806 crammed in the famous old ground.

In the weeks that followed, the predictable rush for Final tickets and frantic organisation of transport to Wembley occupied every spare moment of the Boro faithful and the ‘glory hunters’ seeking to join the crowds as Boro sought silverware. The Evening Gazette described a bombarded British Rail, floods of calls to hire car firms and frantic attempts to secure mini-buses as fans booked ‘anything with wheels’ for their trip to the national stadium.

The build up to the Final was far from smooth for Middlesbrough. A run of form that left Boro facing the prospect of relegation to Division Three saw legendary boss Bruce Rioch depart Ayresome Park with assistant Colin Todd replacing him in the Ayresome dugout. It was an abrupt, sad end to a rollercoaster reign that saw the club saved from extinction at the eleventh hour, secure successive promotions, reach Wembley for the first time and experience two relegations. There was also injury heartache for broken leg victim Trevor Putney and Boro skipper Tony Mowbray, the man Rioch wanted by his side if he ever had to go to the moon, a quote from which the Fly Me To The Moon fanzine took its name.

News coverage from 1990. Credit: Respective publications and Middlesbrough Libraries

In the news

As the big day approached, anticipation at Boro’s first visit to Wembley brought extensive local press coverage with numerous good news articles and trivial features including tales of supporters trekking across the globe to attend the showpiece event. The day before the big match The Northern Echo published a Wembley special complete with caricatures of the Boro squad bound for Wembley and declared:

‘The great exodus will start today with the first of 34,000 fans heading towards the famous twin towers for the greatest day in the Boro’s history…Cup fever is an old cliché, but Middlesbrough has seen nothing like this. For this is the moment every Boro fan has prayed for - and they mean to enjoy it’.

The cup special included a feature predicting the big stage would suit Boro’s Bernie Slaven, assessed the goal threat of England international Peter Davenport, included numerous interviews with former Boro legends such as Wilf Mannion, Willie Maddren and Harold Shepherdson, and even found room for a report on loyal fans bemoaning those who had crawled out of the woodwork! The special also featured numerous good luck messages from the great and good including Rangers manager Graeme Souness, comedian Chubby Brown, Middlesbrough Council and the Teesside Development Corporation.


Wembley filled up long before kick-off with a sea of red and white for the stadium’s first all-seater final - not that the masses from Teesside received the memo. Meanwhile back in Middlesbrough thousands congregated in clubs and pubs to watch the action on the new-fangled Sky One. Despite injury, club captain Tony Mowbray was afforded the honour of leading the team out at Wembley and with it further cemented his place in history.

As for the action on the pitch, Boro threatened to take an early lead as Slaven was denied by a last ditch clearance with the goal at his mercy. Midway through the first half, however, disaster struck. A Tony Dorigo free kick agonisingly found its way into the Boro net with Pears getting a hand to it but failing to keep the powerful drive out. Despite enjoying a lot of possession, Boro ultimately couldn’t find an equaliser and the trophy went to Stamford Bridge.

The following day’s newspapers reflected intense pride on Teesside despite the loss. The Evening Gazette’s ‘MAGIC! Just because some bloke in blue scored a goal, it doesn’t mean we lost’ front page headline captured the historic achievement of Boro’s Wembley moment, with Chelsea’s win merely a footnote. The back page led with ‘Bravo Boro’, referenced fans’ pride at the performance and noted:

‘The history books will show that Boro’s first ever appearance at Wembley ended in a 1-0 defeat by Chelsea. But the story of the match was one of Boro domination, and Colin Todd’s men should have brought the Zenith Data Systems Cup with them back up the M1. If the final had been decided on boxing rules, then referee Roger Milford would have raised Mark Proctor’s arm at the final whistle.’

The Northern Echo’s cup final special edition front page headline read ‘Wembley pride!’ and reporter Martin Howey reflected on the significance of the event rather than the result for the Teessiders:

‘When an industrial Northern town has harboured a dream that one day its football team would emerge from the shadows to grace that sacred turf, one could excuse Middlesbrough fans their intoxication with Wembley fever…It was for them a good old-fashioned day out.’

The match report captured the frustration on the pitch with Boro not troubling Chelsea stopper Dave Beasant. The praise for Alan Kernaghan’s performance and the fact Chelsea’s star man was centre back Ken Monkou told the story of the big day.

The Boro would wait another seven years before reaching Wembley twice in one season, first in an April 1997 League Cup Final 1-1 draw with Leicester City before a 2-0 loss to Chelsea in the FA Cup Final the following month. Two more Wembley appearances have followed since that have both ended in defeat and the Teessiders still await their first Wembley victory. Hopefully next time Boro can end their Wembley misery.