WHILE the PA system introduced last night's Uefa Cup tie with Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon as "One of the biggest night's in Boro's history" many supporters will have been listening to the dulcet tones of John Barnes on Channel Five instead.

As far as showpiece occasions go Middlesbrough could not have gone any further in offering its fans the stage they'd once-upon-a-time only dreamed of.

Yet amazingly only 23,739 were at the Riverside Stadium to watch the latest chapter in Boro's illustrious 129-year history unfold.

The days of 'squeezers' and 'lockouts' at Ayresome Park are a distant memory in today's modern game, when armchairs are preferred to the terraces by many fickle fans, particularly on Teesside.

And while Ayresome Park may lay claim to have staged one of the biggest World Cup upsets when North Korea beat Italy in 1966, Boro's home of 92 years rarely brought home much in the shape of glamour from its underachieving residents.

Indeed, it has only been in recent years that Boro have given the public something to get excited about.

As the Riverside Stadium celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, Boro's home has witnessed many a big night down by the banks of the River Tees.

In 1998, there were only 172 spare seats in the house when Boro booked their place in the League Cup final with a 2-0 win over Liverpool.

But since the Riverside increased its capacity to 35,000 later that year, Boro have often struggled to break the 30,000 mark, even when the big boys have been in town.

Last season a meagre 28,781 watched Boro overcome Arsenal to reach their third League Cup final in seven years.

Even as momentous as Boro's European bow against Banik Ostrava was, the first round clash attracted just under 30,000 back in September.

And, while Lazio arrived a shadow of the side they once were in November, 33,991 watched Boro record a comfortable 2-0 win in Group E. Despite reaching the last 32, only 20,371 watched Boro dispose of Grazer AK in the last round a fortnight ago.

And last night there was only 3,000 more to see what surely was Boro's last glimpse of European action on home soil this season despite a spirited late fightback.

Second half goals from Pedro Barbosa, Roudolphe Douala and Liedson Huniz created more empty seats, before Joseph Job and Chris Riggott reduced the deficit to give Boro some hope in the second leg in Portugal next Thursday.

Big European nights may be synonymous with the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal, but after relative success on the domestic front, Boro fans - flag waving nights et al - have embraced the continental stage with open arms.

Only the coming months will tell whether Boro get another bite at the cherry next season, with or without the support their recent achievements rightfully deserve.

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