Having been voted the best midfielder in Europe for two consecutive years, Gaizka Mendieta secured a move from Valencia to Italian giants Lazio in 2001, with the Romans splashing out £30 million on the Spaniard. They’d been looking to reinvigorate their depleted midfield after the high profile departures of Juan Sebastian Veron and Pavel Nedved to Manchester United and Juventus respectively. However, despite the high price tag, the sixth highest in the world at the time, and high expectations to match, performances initially disappointed, and the money spent on the Bilbao=born player became little more than a stick to beat him with.
Despite forking out such a high fee for his services, then Lazio manager and Italy legend Dino Zoff opted to ease Mendieta into life in Serie A, starting him on the bench in the early stages of the 2001/02 season. However, after only three games, the legendary goalkeeper-turned-manager stepped down from his role in the dugout due to the poor start his side had made, with only three points from a possible nine after consecutive draws against Piacenza, Perugia and Torino respectively. Zoff’s replacement, Alberto Zaccheroni, was seemingly indifferent to Spanish football’s most expensive export, opting instead for the talents of Stefano Fiore or Fabio Liverani, leaving Mendieta once more on the substitute’s bench.
As results continued to disappoint and discontent grew amongst the fanbase due to the club’s perilous financial situation, Mendieta, in part due to his hefty price tag, became a scapegoat for the situation as a whole, and it seemed that the midfield maestro’s career with I Biancocelesti was over before it had even begun. As the death knells of Mendieta’s Serie A career were already beginning to sound and Lazio’s Roman Empire was beginning to crumble, Italian publication La Gazzetta dello Sport described the boy from Bilbao as a ‘terminally ill patient’ in their typically unforgiving manner.
In the summer of 2002, after only twelve months in Italy, both club and player were desperately seeking an end to their partnership. The World Cup in Japan and South Korea had provided Mendieta both refuge from the scrutiny of the Italian press, and an opportunity to once again show the footballing community why he was such a sought after player the previous year and, despite Spain’s disappointing quarter-final exit, the midfielder produced some stellar performances for his country, bagging a goal in a 3-2 win over South Africa. This redemption gave Mendieta opportunity to seek salvation elsewhere, and he found himself back on home shores, as Barcelona opted to take the midfielder on a season-long loan for the 2002/03 campaign.
However, Mendieta’s misfortune followed him to Catalonia as the La Liga giants found themselves floundering behind Real Madrid and a Real Sociedad side that were to be that season’s surprise package. Consequently, Louis Van Gaal found himself out of a job by January 2003 and, by the end of the season, as new club president Joan Laporta looked to stamp his own identity onto a Barca side desperately in need of one, Mendieta found himself on a plane back to his parent club, despite some impressive performances at Camp Nou.
Gaizka, once again, found himself in need of an exit strategy, and, after a meeting with Steve McLaren at Lazio’s training ground, he found an unlikely outlet in the north-east of England, and a chance to breathe new life into a career that had undoubtedly stalled.
Still, the former Valencia captain on a season-long loan was quite the coup for the Premier League side, and the man from the Basque Country wasted no time settling in to life in the North East, as they began a season that would end with ‘Boro winning their first major trophy since their formation in 1876.
Middleborough’s route to the 2004 League Cup final wasn’t an easy ride. A Malcom Christie winner in extra time at home to Brighton & Hove Albion was enough to see them through to the third round, where they would meet Wigan Athletic at the then named JJB Stadium, and Mendieta would get his first goal in a ‘Boro shirt in a 2-1 victory over the home side. A late thunderbolt of a free kick from Jimmy Bullard gave the visitors a scare, but goals from the Spaniard and an impressive solo effort from Massimo Maccarone were enough. It took penalties to decide the fourth and fifth rounds against Everton and Spurs respectively, with both shoot-outs ultimately ending 5-4 in Middleborough’s favour.
The semi-finals would see ‘Boro face their most stern test thus far in the competition, as league leaders and eventual unbeaten Premier League champions Arsenal provided the opposition over two legs. The first game at Highbury saw Mendieta play the decisive pass to Juninho as the Brazilian scored the only goal of the game, with the Middleborough attack exploiting what turned out to be a costly error from the experienced Martin Keown. The veteran centre-half was the villain again in the second leg as he was sent off for a professional foul on Maccarone, with the visitors taking advantage of the extra man in the second half as Boudewijn Zenden broke the deadlock, putting the visitors 2-0 up on aggregate. Brazilian midfielder Edu pulled one back for Arsenal, however a Jose Antonio Reyes own goal with five minute remaining secured a 3-1 aggregate victory for Middleborough.
The League Cup (or Carling Cup, as it was then known) final would guarantee one thing in 2004: an English manager would win a domestic trophy for the first time since Brian Little’s Aston Villa beat Leeds United in the same competition in 1996. Middleborough were, of course, managed by Steve McClaren, and in the opposing dugout sat Sam Allardyce, as he took charge of his experienced Bolton side. In a situation that mirrored Mendieta’s own personal ambitions, the two surprise finalists were eager to prove their doubters wrong, and, with just two minutes on the clock, the Spaniard found Bolo Zenden in space down the left-wing, who crossed for Joseph-Desire Job to fire home from close range, giving Steve McClaren’s side the edge early on. Still celebrating the opener, ‘Boro fans found themselves in dreamland only five minutes later, as the goal scorer was brought down in the box by Emerson Thome, allowing Zenden to coolly stroke home the subsequent spot kick past Jussi Jaaskelainen.
The first half continued to excite, as Kevin Davies pulled one back for Wanderers on twenty-one minutes after some horrendous near-post goalkeeping from Mark Schwarzer, with the Bolton man finding the net from an impossible angle. The Australian keeper made amends for his error as the first-half drew to a close with a double save from Per Hendersen and Youri Djorkaeff to keep the scoreline at 2-1 and, despite Bolton’s push for an equaliser throughout the second half, Mendieta’s men saw the game out for a historic victory at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, ensuring that he would collect his first winner’s medal since a Copa Del Rey victory with Valencia in 1999.
After making a permanent switch to Teesside, Mendieta’s later years at Middleborough were compromised by a string of injuries, and he eventually retired in 2008, bringing to a conclusion a seventeen-year playing career. One of the best midfielders in the world in his prime, Gaizka Mendieta’s time in football undoubtedly took some unexpected directions, but the legacy of the man who swapped Rome for the Riverside will live on as one of the most accomplished midfielders of his day.