IT has become the defining image of Middlesbrough’s Carling Cup victory. Steve Gibson, with his red buttonhole resplendent on the lapel of his suit jacket, hoisted precariously on the shoulders of Juninho and George Boateng on the Millennium Stadium pitch, with a jubilant Gareth Southgate loitering behind him, about to pour a bottle of champagne onto his head.

The man who did so much to save Middlesbrough in the 1980s, and funded the growth that transformed the club in the 1990s and 2000s, revelling in its greatest moment. Fan, owner, cheerleader, custodian. And for that one moment, the centre of attention rather than someone who would ordinarily prefer others to take the limelight.

“It certainly wasn’t planned,” explained Gibson, during a rare interview marking the 20th anniversary of Boro’s cup-winning success, which falls this Thursday. “Parts of that day are a bit of a blur now, but I vividly remember just enjoying the moment after the final whistle when Bill Beswick came over to me.

“It was Bill that got me onto the pitch. He just said, ‘Come on Steve, you need to be out there and be a part of this’. It wasn’t really something that came naturally to me, to be honest, being part of it like that, but the players were great and wanted to include me in everything.

“Then Steve (McClaren) came over and said, ‘I’m so glad you’re out here’, he wanted me to be a part of it all too. Looking back now, I’m glad I didn’t put up too much of a fight. It was great to be involved in those celebrations, although it cost me a bit in dry-cleaning fees with the suit.”

The Northern Echo: Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson lifts the Carling CupMiddlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson lifts the Carling Cup (Image: The Northern Echo)

Whereas plenty of Middlesbrough fans turned the Carling Cup trip to Cardiff into a weekend of celebration, for Gibson, final day began with an early-morning flight and a brief panic about making it out of the airport.

“There was a group of us that flew down on the day of the game,” he said. “My main memory before the game is that it was a terrible journey from the airport. For whatever reason, it seemed to take forever to get through the airport and then because we were probably a bit later than we wanted to be, the journey to the stadium seemed to take forever too.

“I was sitting there thinking, ‘Bloody hell, we’ve made it to the cup final and I’m going to miss the kick-off’. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, but I remember just seeing a sea of red as we were travelling through Cardiff to the ground. It felt like the whole of Middlesbrough was in Wales.

“We got into the stadium, and then I remember dashing down to the pitch because I wanted to try to catch Steve for a moment or two before the game. We had a chat on the side of the pitch, then we headed off towards the dressing room.”

On his way up the tunnel, Gibson met Bolton Wanderers boss Sam Allardyce. If you believe in fate, then what happened next might just have changed the course of footballing history.

“Sam came over with a big grin on his face,” said Gibson. “Believe it or not, a seagull had soiled his jacket. He had his cup-final suit on, and a bird had done its business on it. He pointed to it, and said, ‘You see that Steve, that’s good luck that is, we’re winning today’.

“I was with Keith Lamb, and I’ll never forget, from absolutely nowhere, Keith suddenly had this cloth in his hand. To this day, I have no idea where it came from or how he came to have it. It was like a magic trick. He walks up to Sam, rubs it all off, and says, ‘Well, we’d better see about that then, hadn’t we. There we go, no more good luck now’. Maybe it worked.”

The game itself saw Boro roar into a two-goal lead inside the opening ten minutes thanks to a second-minute strike from Joseph-Desire Job and a penalty from Bolo Zenden, before Bolton grabbed a goal back through Kevin Davies midway through the first half. The final hour was a nip-and-tuck affair, but with Mark Schwarzer making a couple of crucial saves and Zenden, Juninho and Gaizka Mendieta combining to dominate midfield, Boro held on to win.

“The two early goals were beyond our wildest dreams, really,” said Gibson. “You were pinching yourself to make sure it was real, but then Bolton got a goal back and it obviously got a lot tighter.

The Northern Echo: Bolo Zenden scores from the penalty spot in the Carling Cup finalBolo Zenden scores from the penalty spot in the Carling Cup final (Image: PA)

“I remember just being really impressed by how resilient we were. Bolton had their moments, but we stood firm superbly and limited them to just a handful of chances really. The clock ticked on, and I remember turning to Keith and saying, ‘Right, how long’s he going to add on here, then?' And literally, the second I’d finishing speaking, the referee blew his whistle.

“It was relief, really. We’d obviously been to other cup finals and lost, so to be on the right end of it for once felt incredible. The fans were amazing after the final whistle. I think they’d still be there now singing and celebrating if they’d been able to. It was a whole host of things really – joy, relief, pride, satisfaction. Part of you was thinking about the journey the club had been on, and all the people who had made it possible along the way. It felt like the culmination of all those things.”

So, did the partying continue long into the night? “Not at all,” said Gibson. “We had the celebrations on the pitch, then the players carried on in the dressing room for a bit and I had to go and meet a few people.

“But then, not long after that, we were all heading back to the airport and getting on a flight back home. The team had a game the following week, so Steve had been adamant that, whatever the result, he wanted to get back up to the North-East to start trying to refocus minds for the next game. It wouldn’t have felt right to stay down when the players and everyone else were heading home.

“I remember having the trophy with us on the flight, that was nice. But when everyone tells me about all the parties that were taking place in Cardiff that night, I tell them I had an early night in bed with my head down.”

There will be further celebrations this week, culminating in an anniversary dinner in Middlesbrough ahead of the weekend, in which the memories of that golden leap year day in Cardiff will be relived.

Gibson has remained in place for the last two decades, shepherding the club through a series of ups and downs. As he reflects on the greatest day in Boro’s history, can he envisage helping to stage a repeat?

The Northern Echo: Middlesbrough chairman Steve GibsonMiddlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson

“It’s what keeps me going,” said the 66-year-old, who remains as heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the club as ever. “People say football has changed so much in the last 20 years that it would be impossible for a club like Middlesbrough to do that again, but I don’t agree with that.

“Yes, it’s harder now, and yes, the gap between the top few clubs and the rest has got bigger and bigger. But you only have to look at this season – we were only 90 minutes away from getting to Wembley in the final.

“It’s been a challenging season in some respects, but I genuinely believe we’ve put some really strong foundations in place that will help take us forward in the next few years. If we can build on that, who knows where we might get to?

“Before 2004, I’d lost count of the number of people who were telling me Middlesbrough would never win anything. Well, they were proved wrong. So, when people tell me we can’t do that again, it just makes me determined to prove them wrong too.”