SITTING in a meeting room at St George’s Park, backing on to a corridor that is framed by pictures of him celebrating at World Cup finals and European Championships, Gareth Southgate looks every inch the England manager. In his mind, though, the man who has the hopes of a country resting on his shoulders is somewhere else.

He’s in Cardiff, 20 years ago, much younger, unquestionably, but still crystal clear in his mind. He’s on a bus, travelling to the Millennium Stadium, speechless at the sea of red flanking both sides of the road. He’s out on the pitch, at the heart of the back four, climbing high to head away balls that are pouring into the box. Then, in the climax of his personal highlights reel, he’s lifting a trophy above his head and pouring champagne onto the head of Steve Gibson.

England inspiration, national treasure, global footballing figure. But also, for time immemorial, Middlesbrough captain. And not just any Middlesbrough captain either, but the one that has done something no one else has been able to emulate.

“The reality is that I haven’t actually won very much,” said Southgate, who was speaking ahead of today’s 20th anniversary of Boro’s Carling Cup success. “I’ve had some amazing experiences, amazing nights, at all three of my clubs and with the national team. But that moment with Middlesbrough is right up there with all of them.

“Cardiff is up there with anything I’ve ever done. Because we won, because I got to captain the team, because it was a genuine moment of history. When I joined and became captain, I became very aware of how revered Mogga (Tony Mowbray) was. I could see talking to people like Colin Cooper and the other guys, just what Mogga was and what he meant. You always felt a bit inferior to that, really. So, to be able to be the captain that lifted the trophy meant a huge amount.”

The Northern Echo: Gareth Southgate celebrates Middlesbrough's Carling Cup winGareth Southgate celebrates Middlesbrough's Carling Cup win (Image: The Northern Echo)

And still means a huge amount today. But before we get to that moment, let’s reflect on the journey that culminated in the Carling Cup being raised aloft in the Millennium Stadium.

Middlesbrough’s route to glory began with early-round wins over Brighton and Wigan Athletic. Then, it was a pair of nerve-jangling games against Everton and Tottenham, both of which ended in penalty shootouts.

“I remember the Spurs game being a really good game,” said Southgate. “Everton around that time were always hard to beat, and Spurs at Spurs is a tough game whatever. But what we did have was good penalty takers – obviously myself not included!

“Mendy, Bolo, Michael Ricketts was a very good penalty taker, Danny Mills was head down and hit it hard, Franck was always a very confident player and liked to take a penalty. I think when you get through two ties like that, against good-level Premier League opposition, you start thinking it might be your year.”

Next up, though, was a two-legged semi-final against Arsenal. Yes, Arsene Wenger tended to make changes in the League Cup, but it was still going to be a massive ask for Boro to make the final. Winning 1-0 at Highbury, courtesy of a goal from Juninho, helped. But could a fit-again Southgate, who had missed the first leg of the semi-final through injury, skipper his side to Cardiff?

“It was a brilliant night,” he said. “I always felt that whenever the big boys came, the atmosphere in the stadium was just so different. There was so much energy, and of course we had quite a good record against the big teams, right the way through my time at the club.

“The team we had that year, and a bit beyond that, had some brilliant big-match players, it was just that for whatever reason, we couldn’t quite patch it together in the league over the course of a whole season. Maybe that was because we had slightly ageing players, but it meant we also had players who had been there on the big nights. Juni, Bolo, Mendy, a few internationals at the back, Schwarz. You knew that in a one-off game, we could beat anyone, and that’s what happened.”

The Northern Echo: Gareth Southgate battles with Patrick Vieira in Middlesbrough's semi-final winGareth Southgate battles with Patrick Vieira in Middlesbrough's semi-final win (Image: The Northern Echo)

All of which took Boro to the final against Bolton. While Steve McClaren’s side boasted plenty of individual experience, taking part in such a massive occasion as a collective was a novel event. Everything needed to be right, and Southgate is quick to praise McClaren for the way he handled the build-up to the game.

“I thought, managerially, Steve got that week spot on,” he said. “It was just small details, but I think his experience of being at Man United really helped. For example, all the media and commercial stuff, we got that out of the way early in the week. I remember thinking, ‘That’s really smart’ because I’d been involved in big matches before where the build-up became quite draining and dragged on. We were really clear early in the week on what the team was going to be, so you weren’t leaving players out on the night before the game and causing a big emotional reaction. Again, I thought Steve did that really well.

“There was definitely pressure though. From a personal perspective, a lot of the big matches we’d had with Boro, and in a couple of the previous finals I’d been involved in, we weren’t favourites. This was different. I felt more pressure because I just felt, ‘This is a game we have to win’. Bolton had players with big-game experience, but it wasn’t like we were playing Man United or whoever, who were winning trophies every season. I personally felt, ‘We just have to get over the line’.”

Of course, Boro did just that. Early goals from Joseph-Desire Job and Bolo Zenden fired them into a two-goal lead, and while Kevin Davies pulled a goal back midway through the first half, Boro successfully withstood some second-half pressure to finish as winners.

Southgate lifted the trophy, the rest of the team celebrated around him, and Gibson was hoisted shoulder-high before being drenched in champagne. In the stands, the outpouring of joy was understandably unrestrained.

“I’d won a trophy at Villa, but Villa have won the European Cup,” said Southgate. “This was different. The emotion of the fans, and what it meant to them, was completely different to anything I’d ever experienced.

The Northern Echo: Gareth Southgate lifts the Carling Cup trophy during Middlesbrough's open-topped bus tour in 2004Gareth Southgate lifts the Carling Cup trophy during Middlesbrough's open-topped bus tour in 2004 (Image: The Northern Echo)

“It was great to have Steve, as owner and chairman, right at the heart of it. Both Bill Beswick and Steve McClaren talked about Steve in the build-up to the game, explaining the history of it all. I was already aware of all of that really, but I think it was powerful just to reinforce it. Now I take a step back, further down the line, it’s absolutely clear to me that without Steve Gibson, there’d be no modern-day Middlesbrough.

“I chuckle because he was so modest and behind-the-scenes, but my God, he lapped that up, didn’t he! Actually, though, that was great. That was really what it meant to him, and he didn’t hold back. The thoughts that must have been going through his head, from when he rescued the club to that moment, it was brilliant. Really though, it just put him in with the tens of thousands of other Boro fans who were there, because that’s how they all must have felt. He was an absolute representation of them at that moment.”

Twenty years on, and the moment remains the highpoint of Middlesbrough’s history, with Southgate forever at the heart of it as the talisman of the team.

“I’ve seen a few of the guys speaking in the last few days, and it’s strange because it feels like, within a couple of seconds, you’re transported straight back into that dressing room, being part of that team,” he said. “I’ve met up with a few of the guys down the years, but when you see their faces together, and hear their voices, it’s like you’ve never been away.

“That’s the beauty of football. You don’t have to see each other for ten years, but when you’ve been part of something like we were at Middlesbrough, you’re never not part of that. I look back on it really fondly. I know with what happened with Ugo, I’m always going to make the effort to stay part of it all. I don’t have many regrets in my life, but I never got the chance to say a lot of things to Ugo that I’d like to have said to him. He’ll always be a part of what we were and what we are.”