Football: Fan's Eye View No 247 - Middlesbrough: Gazza and Merson has ring of fantasy football

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The Independent Online
A CUP final, the ongoing battle for promotion, the arrival of another international star, and one of our own scoring for England... just an average week for Boro fans like me.

OK, I exaggerate - but we've got used to bouncing up and down between divisions in recent years. We've grown accustomed to the unveiling - and pretty rapid departure - of exotic talents such as Ravanelli, Emerson and Juninho. As a youngster the Anglo-Scottish Cup Final (we beat Fulham over two legs) was my idea of a big cup final. Tomorrow's trip to Wembley makes it three in a year.

Gazza's arrival, though, is special. Unthinkable five years ago, we're now in the market for the game's big names. Last time he played in Middlesbrough, his path was carpeted with Mars bars. This time he'll be greeted with garlands. Barbers across Teesside have their scissors poised to perform Gazza-cuts for the area's young men. Others may be bracing themselves for his arrival too: sports injury clinics and local journalists for example. But Gazza in a Boro shirt at Wembley - what a thought.

Some fans think we've splashed out on an injury-prone liability who'll bring us all the wrong headlines. I can see the point, but on purely sporting grounds the pairing of Gascoigne and Merson has the ring of fantasy football about it. All it needs now is for Juninho to hop on a plane from Madrid and fly in to Teesside Airport.

If Gazza still appears on the front pages as often as the back then Paul Merson has learnt to confine his activities to football. It was a just reward that his goal helped England out of a hole in Switzerland this week. He's been a revelation in a red shirt - the Juninho figure for this season, adding spark and invention. He might have moved into Ravanelli's old house, but there the similarities end. Merson's knuckled down, kept his mouth shut, given everything - and must now have a trip to the World Cup to look forward to this year.

It's been a strange transformation for the fans. Once we pored over the back pages for the tiniest mention of Boro. Now Bryan Robson's side provides big news and high drama. Whichever TV producer picked Sunderland as the subject for the Premier Passions series must be kicking themselves. The much better tale of dreams, squabbling, and ultimate disaster was happening a few miles down the A19.

Last season rendered football's cliches inadequate. It was a roller-coaster ride, and at the end of the day we were sick as parrots. This year, however, is threatening to push it close.

A couple of weeks ago I saw the game at QPR, shortly after Boro's scintillating win over Liverpool and the derby triumph against Sunderland. We'd also lost to Forest, but there were few warning signs of the miserable, almost comical night at Loftus Road. Squeezed into the away end, half-time saw us four down and in a state of denial. I stayed on - and we lost 5-0.

A couple more wins, the unfolding chaos up the road in Tyneside, and the purchase of Gazza has helped put the spring back into the step of Boro's faithful. Now it's Chelsea again, and the prospect of revenge for last year's FA Cup final. If we can keep them out for 50 seconds, then who knows? Surely we can't leave Wembley empty-handed for a third time.

Admitting allegiance to Boro last summer brought a strange reaction: deep pity mixed with side-splitting hilarity. This year it might be different - a place in the Premiership and in Europe perhaps, with Gazza and Merson starring in France? We'd take it all in our stride.

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