THE sight of one of the most venerated footballing cathedrals in the country in Villa Park should provide Middlesbrough with at least a kernel of hope this evening.
An epic night at the second city venue went down in Boro folklore as it helped the club famously book their first Wembley ticket in 1990, although it will probably take something to surpass that if the Teessiders are to secure a pass to the home of football later this month.
It was on a rain-lashed occasion at B6 on January 30, 1990 that Boro took a giant stride towards Wembley with a shock 2-1 win at Villa in the first leg of the Northern Final of the now defunct Zenith Data Systems Cup.
A long-range winner from Mark Brennan sparked ecstatic celebrations among visiting supporters in the North Stand.
Boro held their nerve back on Teesside in extra-time to triumph 2-1 in the second leg at Ayresome Park with the final whistle yielding scenes of jubilation.
Both ties are fondly recalled to this day.
The success was sweetened by the fact that Boro, then in the second tier, were rank outsiders against a Villa side who were flexing their muscles again at the top end of the First Division under the command of the late Graham Taylor, with the Midlands club finishing as runners-up to Liverpool in 89-90.
Now, as then, Villa will be hotly fancied in their latest mission, especially after their second successive 1-0 win at the Riverside Stadium to put them in the driving seat to reach Wembley.
The claret-and-blue hordes who will pack out Villa Park will arrive in expectation this evening, with Boro manager Tony Pulis aiming to spring a surprise or two just as did Boro’s class of 89-90.
Pulis, sweating on the fitness of key defender Daniel Ayala, who underwent a scan yesterday after coming off with a knee injury in the second half of Saturday’s first leg, said: “Obviously Villa have got the upper hand and we understand and recognise that and they go in as strong favourites. We have got to make sure we know what to do and everybody understands the situation.
The mindset for the players and me is to make sure we go there and clear our minds, dust ourselves down and give the best we can.Tony Pulis
“I am looking forward to the game and the players also want the game to come around. We are going to a great stadium and great football club with forty-odd thousand there and a great atmosphere. This is what we are all in it for.
“I do not think there was any pressure on us on Saturday. I think the pressure has been on Villa. They are the team who everyone expects to go through and they finished above us in the league and had beaten us at the Riverside once before.
“There was no pressure on us at all. The mindset for the players and me is to make sure we go there and clear our minds, dust ourselves down and give the best we can and, hopefully, that will be good enough.”
Villa’s win on Teesside may see them in control, but memories of his last Championship play-off semi-final second-leg experience will preclude any complacency for their manager Steve Bruce.
Two years ago Bruce, then in charge of Hull City, saw his side almost let slip an unassailable looking 3-0 first-leg lead on home soil, with Derby County threatening to wipe out Hull’s lead in going 2-0 ahead at the KC Stadium.
Hull held on for a tense 3-2 aggregate win with Bruce wise to adopt a note of caution despite Villa’s 1-0 first-leg advantage.
Given such a tough 2018 for the Villa chief, whose parents Sheenagh and Joe have both died this year, many in the football industry will be quietly rooting for the north-easterner in his quest to clinch the fifth Championship promotion of his career.
While it would no doubt represent an emotional achievement, Bruce is staying firmly focused.
He added: “We have given ourselves an advantage, (but) we are playing against a very experienced team and experienced manager. We cannot take anything for granted. If we think we can show up and just put our boots on then we are mistaken.”
Last six games: Aston Villa WWWDLW Middlesbrough LWWWDL.
Referee: M Dean (Merseyside).
Last time: Aston Villa 0 Middlesbrough 2; EFL Cup; September 19, 2017.