Barmby graces the Riverside citadel

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The Independent Online
PHIL SHAW

Middlesbrough 2 Chelsea 0

From Ardiles and Villa to Bergkamp and Gullit, the old chestnut has persisted. Nice skills - but will they fancy it on a freezing February night at Middlesbrough?

The question was always as patronising to Middlesbrough, reducing town and team to a metaphor for dourness, as it was insulting to those foreign players whose "bottle" supposedly went when they strayed north of Scotch Corner. After the safe and successful opening of Boro's pounds 16m Riverside Stadium, it should finally be seen for the xenophobic nonsense it is.

Ayresome Park was not, admittedly, a picturesque place, unless the picture was by Lowry; within its 92-year-old confines Ruud Gullit might have seemed like a stranded exotic bird. At Boro's stylish new home, alive with 28,286 all-seated, all-singing spectators, Chelsea's libero may almost have felt as if he were back in Italy.

Almost. Glenn Hoddle's side, goalless in three games, are a long way short of the standards to which the Dutchman was accustomed at Sampdoria, let alone Milan. As Boro strove for a performance worthy of the occasion and the setting, Chelsea fulfilled the part of sacrificial lambs.

To Craig Hignett, once of Crewe, went the distinction of driving the first goal at Riverside. Norway's Jan-Age Fjortoft buried the second, though it was as gratifying for the manager, Bryan Robson, that his pounds 5.25m recruit from Spurs, Nick Barmby, was the Boro architect who selflessly shredded Chelsea. Happily for Barmby, Robson is also Terry Venables's No 2.

This was a day, however, when flesh and blood were a sideshow to the main attraction of metal, concrete and plastic. As the top division's first purpose-built new venue since Maine Road 72 years ago, Riverside had to be more than the glorified DIY superstore which, with the dazzling exception of Huddersfield, passes for the stadium of the future in the lower echelons.

The teething troubles were no worse than one would expect of a complex constructed in 32 weeks on the site of a derelict dock. Mounds of rubble covered the car parks, forcing many to walk a mile from the town centre. To share in the spectacle, and the metamorphosis from Ayresome to awesome, it was a small inconvenience.

With its 30,000 red seats, unobstructed views and unified design - in which three of the white stand roofs are linked in a horseshoe shape - Riverside resembles a scaled-down Old Trafford. Because of the building work which currently deprives Manchester United of one stand, Boro's citadel may do more this season to confound the theory that seats and atmosphere are incompatible.

The tumult, alas, included the routine booing of Gullit, whose waning powers still merited applause. Only when he forsook the defensive part of an over-ambitious free role did Chelsea threaten.Yet Robson's mobile attackers flooded into the breach and they leaked a second goal. Maybe the Tannoy requests for the duty plumber were at Hoddle's behest.

As the fans filed out, a chimney belched out smoke from the neighbouring British Steel works framed against the Cleveland Hills. In the Tees, at the rear of the stand to which the Holgate End has decamped, salmon swim once more. With symbols of continuity and renewal all around them, Middlesbrough will not lightly forget their past - nor lose sight of a hugely promising future.

Goals: Hignett (39) 1-0; Fjortoft (75) 2-0.

Middlesbrough (3-4-2-1): Miller; Pearson, Vickers, Whyte; Cox, Pollock, Mustoe, Morris; Barmby, Hignett; Fjortoft. Substitutes not used: Whelan, Moreno, Kavanagh.

Chelsea (1-2-5-2): Kharin; Gullit; Sinclair, Johnsen; Clarke, Lee, Wise, Peacock (Spencer, 68), Myers; Hughes, Stein (Newton, 82). Substitute not used: Hitchcock (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).

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