And so the Euro tour is over. After we managed to complete our task at hand, winning by a solitary first half goal from Adam Rooney stooping to meet the inch-perfect cross from Nathan Redmond, Braga, down to ten men after just fifteen minutes, failed to overcome Club Brugge and the pair shared the spoils in a 1-1 draw; which saw both teams through to the knock-out stages.
Our dreams of lengthening our European tour were over, but what a few months it has been. Starting in August, we travelled to the small island of Madeira to play out a fantastic 0-0 draw against C.D Nacional, a game in which we could and should have come out victorious. The return leg saw us this time take our chances and progress into the group stages of the competition, after goals from Nathan Redmond, David Murphy and Chris Wood rightfully saw us 3-0 winners on the night.
Club Brugge, Nk Maribor and last year’s losing finalists SC Braga lay in wait in Group H, and we were brought back down to earth in a 3-1 defeat at the hands Braga in the first group game. It looked to be going from bad to worse in our first away game in Slovenia, when Maribor went 1-0 ahead after a colossal mix-up at the back leaving Colin Doyle and Jonathan Spector both blushing. But strikes from first Chris Burke and then Wade Elliott secured our first victory in the group and our first away win.
We were in away day dreamland again in late-October; a 5,000+ following of jubilant Bluenoses saw their team again go behind, but again come back to win; this time in the most spectacular of fashions. David Murphy got his side back on level terms in the first half, and deep into 10 minutes of injury time after Pablo Ibanez’s head injury, substitute Chris Wood connected with Marlon King’s cross and sent the travelling Blues into delirium. Another away victory, another battling performance… and another city drank dry!
Facing Brugge again in our second home game in the group stages, we faced an uphill struggle after going two goals down in quick succession. But Blues displayed all the characteristics that got them to the group stages: desire, determination and spirit. First came a goal from Jean Beausejour which sparked the come back, and then a Marlon King penalty sealed a point for the blue boys and gave the club a real chance of progressing into the knock-out stages.
Braga, the only team to have taken all three points off us so far, were our next opponents: and it was all going so well. Attacking flair from the off won us an early penalty, but Nikola Zigic failed to convert and we were unlucky to lose by a single goal; courtesy of a long range shot from Hugo Viana which was going wide until a harsh deflection from Curtis Davies meant the ball crept past Boaz Myhill. And the bad night didn’t stop there: Maribor, three-nil up against Brugge, collapsed and conceded four goals in quick succession, meaning that qualification was out of our hands going into the final game of Group H.
And that’s where Blues’ European adventure ended; with a deserved 1-0 win against Maribor. But that doesn’t mean that we should be disheartened. A team – a Championship team – that was cleverly crafted on a shoe string budget by new manager Chris Hughton in the summer, have shown pride in battle getting so far in a European competition. They’ve given us some fantastic nights that will live long in the memory, some dazzling performances that we can all be proud of, and plenty of great goals which we can treasure forever. We’ve all been part of it: from the winning goal in the Carling Cup final to the full time whistle against Maribor last night, and it’s something I’m sure we’ll all look back on and smile at. We entered the competition, an unknown quantity to not only the teams competing against us but to ourselves – after a summer of turbulence seeing players depart and new faces arrive – but we gave it a bloody good go, made some alliances with clubs and fans along the way and at no point did we disgrace ourselves nor become disheartened. And you know what? We even diminished the ‘true blues’ fashion of falling at the last hurdle, by completing our side of the bargain and finishing on a high.
A brilliant adventure that none of us will ever forget. All together now: We’ve all been on a European tour, a European tour, a European tour…