NOSTALGIA ALERT! Last time Boro played Mansfield a place at Wembley was looming too. Back in March 1987 Bruce Rioch’s side were squeezed out in the Northern semi-final of the Freight Rover Trophy, going down 1-0 at Ayresome Park in front of a crowd of 11,754.
The Rioch revival was gathering pace and a reshaped Boro were favourites: they had not been out of the top three of the third division all season and went into the game in excellent home form with six successive wins over Carlisle, Doncaster, Newport, Bristol Rovers, Fulham and Bristol City behind them. Mid-table Mansfield shoudl have been a formality but Boro froze and a golden chance for what then passed as glamour was snatch away. I was gutted and convinced Boro’s Wembley Jinx would deny us glory for all eternity.
There was a buzz about Boro. The Rioch revival was just gathering real pace as belief in the team took hold. Boro had climbed out of the coffin and the near escape from liquidation, the new broom in the boardroom and a young, mainly local team that the crowd could relate – and feasibly could have lived next door to or bump into in Newboulds or Frankie Dees – were forging a strong bond with the Holgate. Gates were nudging up and a pre-meltdown gates of 5,000 had been transformed to regular figures of over 10,000 (calculation of an average is made difficult because of the approximately 52,000 who attended the Port Vale match at the Vic).
In an eighties retro ‘typical Boro’ moment Boro bottled it and on the night offered nothing. Mansfield won it with a late penalty after teenage striker Alan Kernaghan put in one of those ‘a centre forward’s tackles’ that was to become his trademark and the Wembley dream was dashed. Mansfield beat fourth division Chester over two legs in the Northern final then beat Bristol City on penalties to lift the silverware at the Twin Towers.
Team: Pears, Coyle (Kerr), Cooper, Mowbray, Parkinson, Kernaghan, Slaven, Stephens, Hamilton, Gill, Hodgson (Ripley). Read it and weep.
Boro lost the next game away at Walsall but then bounced back by concentrating on the league and went undefeated in 13 games until the end of the season to clinch promotion. Wembley would have to wait.