Chris Wilder has transformed Middlesbrough. In the space of a few months they have gone from the Championship’s underachievers to promotion contenders and now, they have an FA Cup quarter-final against the champions of Europe to contend with.
Having already dumped Manchester United out at Old Trafford and Tottenham Hotspur out at the Riverside, this has already been a memorable cup run for Boro, but Chelsea provide their toughest test yet.
Their quality is undoubted. Champions League quarter-finalists and the third best side in the Premier League, this competition arguably provides their best chance of silverware this season. Yet, given the build-up and the love for a cup upset, it’s the tie that every neutral would love to see Chelsea lose.
This is a club that this week attempted to get this game played behind closed doors as a matter of “sporting integrity.” Due to the sanctions imposed on Roman Abramovich’s assets, the club is now no longer able to sell tickets to games, sell anything at the club shop and are under a transfer ban.
This club, so full of sporting integrity, is the same club that joined up with the European Super League at the drop of a hat - a club that was willing to turn its back on English football for a few extra quid. There was no mention of this sporting integrity from Chelsea when Abramovich first came into English football and disrupted the elite by spending more money than we had ever seen before in the Premier League.
They’ve enjoyed the success that the Russian has brought to the club, and now they must suffer the consequences of his ownership. Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson did not hold back when discussing the state of his sides’ FA Cup opponents - after they submitted their request to play behind closed doors to the FA.
“Chelsea and sporting integrity do not belong in the same sentence,” he began.
"Where is the intellect of Bruce Buck, the chairman of Chelsea, who has been an apologist for his owner, where the trophies won over 19 years have come from the corrupt money provided by Abramovich?"
"Where is the intellect of the chairman of Chelsea when it comes to playing his games at home in front of his season-ticket holders? Does he want to play all his away games at empty stadiums?”
Chelsea realised the error of their ways and withdrew their request after complete condemnation from the footballing world, but this is a club that has made too many mistakes in recent years. Now under fire due to their owners’ links with Vladimir Putin, instead of keeping quiet and accepting their punishment, they have made themselves a laughing stock.
Now Boro have not been the model club in their history. They overspent in the late 1990s as Paul Merson and Fabrizio Ravanelli surprisingly joined the north-east side, and recently their chairman was involved in a dispute with Derby County that almost put the Rams out of business. But there is one big difference. Their money didn’t come from a Russian oligarch whose country was responsible for one the continent's worst war in over half a century.
Steve Gibson is a local lad, who has put his heart and soul, as well as millions of pounds into the Riverside club, and now they are on the brink of a potential return to the Premier League. Led by Wilder, they could well secure a top six finish come May, but they could do the whole of English football a favour this weekend by dumping Chelsea out of the FA Cup.