Middlesbrough fans are dreaming of Wembley

Port Vale 0-3 Middlesbrough (Howson 11′, Rogers 23′, Crooks 53′)

VALE PARK — Middlesbrough’s first-team squad is so depleted that four of their substitutes on Tuesday evening have never made a senior appearance for the club.

Such is the juggling act of Championship management, Michael Carrick still rested a usual starter or two and some supporters joked pre-game that that the best result would be nobody sustaining an injury. December is a long month in the EFL and resources are spread thinly across hard pitches.

Romance still finds a way, just about. Behind the goal at Vale Park, 3,100 Boro fans jumped and danced and que sera’d to keep warm and to mark the magnitude of the achievement.

A proportion of them wore Santa hats and replica shirts over thick jumpers, a festive red-and-white getup. Boro have reached their first domestic cup semi-final in 18 years and they are not quite done yet.

For all the talk of the Carabao Cup becoming an awkward inconvenience for Premier League clubs, it has almost exclusively become a natural habitat in which they feed greedily.

The last time a winner of this competition didn’t also qualify for European football through their league position was Swansea City in 2012. Four clubs have won it since: Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool.

Here, then, was cause for great promise. Port Vale hadn’t even progressed beyond the fourth round of a major cup competition since 1996 and had never played in a quarter-final before.

Their route to this stage has been littered with luck-of-the-draw fortune, ties against three League Two sides and one from League One. But the most unlikely event in their modern history presented itself.

In hindsight, they may curse that the big fish did not arrive in the bleak midwinter for the Sky Sports cameras and hype machine to roll in along the A50. The less fierce draw is all very well until you get swatted aside by a team one division and several classes above you without even selling out the ground.

By 53 minutes, and a three-goal deficit, there were shifty looks between couples in the Lorne Street Stand who has flashing thoughts of hot drinks and radiators.

Middlesbrough were not dominant throughout, but they met hardy effort with clever, classy passing counter attacks that cut through a wispy midfield and high defensive line.

BURSLEM, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 19: A Middlesbrough fan wearing a Santa hat shows their support during the Carabao Cup Quarter Final match between Port Vale and Middlesbrough at Vale Park on December 19, 2023 in Burslem, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
Boro gave their fans a festive treat at Vale Park (Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty)
BURSLEM, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 19: A Middlesbrough fan dressed as Santa shows their support during the Carabao Cup Quarter Final match between Port Vale and Middlesbrough at Vale Park on December 19, 2023 in Burslem, England. (Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)
Some wore Santa hats to keep out the cold (Photo: Nathan Stirk/Getty)

Morgan Rogers, the winger signed from Manchester City in the summer, has a mercurial air but a technical ceiling above anyone else on the pitch even at 21. Jonny Howson did his bit for the veteran club, the 35-year-old captain opening the scoring.

BURSLEM, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 19: Johnathan Howson of Middlesbrough celebrates with team mate Lukas Engel after scoring their sides first goal during the Carabao Cup Quarter Final match between Port Vale and Middlesbrough at Vale Park on December 19, 2023 in Burslem, England. (Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)
Jonny Howson (left) opened the scoring (Photo: Nathan Stirk/Getty)
BURSLEM, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 19: Morgan Rogers of Middlesbrough celebrates after scoring their sides second goal during the Carabao Cup Quarter Final match between Port Vale and Middlesbrough at Vale Park on December 19, 2023 in Burslem, England. (Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)
Rogers was capable of producing moments that few teammates and no opponents could (Photo: Nathan Stirk/Getty)

Then came the festive treats: Rogers’ superbly composed finish, Matt Crooks bustling his way through and doing Connor Ripley with the eyes, an away end bouncing to the tune of Jingle Bells – “Oh what fun it is to see Boro win away” – and a last quarter of the game played at quarter pace to preserve energy. That’ll please Carrick almost as much as the result.

But it’s all for the fans, who went through the chant repertoire with the game safe – there are few better feelings. Away days before Christmas hit supporters hard in the pocket. They’re worth double when there’s an army of you singing about Wembley. Carrick knows all about winning this competition. Don’t rule them out against the big boys.

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