Having lost the Coca-Cola Cup (or so it seemed when "Bruno" Heskey delivered his sucker punch) and lost ground in the Premiership survival race, Bryan Robson and his men probably had no wish to encounter a nothing-to-lose team on the FA Cup road to Wembley this afternoon. It is just as well that they will be facing Chesterfield at Old Trafford as nothing could stir the competitive juices in Middlesbrough's manager more vigorously than a return to his old playing patch.
Considering Robson still lives in Cheshire, it could be said to be more of a home match for him than any engagement at the Riverside Stadium. It may prove of equal significance that for one of the key playing members of the Boro camp this afternoon's semi-final show happens to have been booked for the theatre of his football dreams. Since his boyhood days dressed as a Red Devil on the playing fields of southern Jutland, Mikkel Beck has dreamed of stepping on to the Old Trafford turf one day.
"I was a Manchester United fan when I was younger," Fabrizio Ravanelli's striking partner revealed. "It wasn't so much because they had two Danish players, Jesper Olsen and John Sivebaek. It was to do with my father, Carl. He's a teacher and he went to England with the school every summer. The first kit he brought me back was Manchester United's. It was just that coincidence at first, but I watched them on television back home and supported them. They didn't have much success at that time - it was all Liverpool - but I stood by them. Playing at Old Trafford will be something special for me."
Beck had little success at Wembley last week, though neither did any of his high- profile, highly paid colleagues. He did, however, create the best chance of the 120 minutes, with the slide-rule pass from wide on the left that was met with a slapdash finish by Ravanelli. The Dane, who had carried a knee injury from the early stages against Leicester, served bench-duty until the final minute of the goalless draw at Upton Park on Wednesday as Robson packed his midfield and asked Ravanelli to forage in not-so- splendid isolation up front. This afternoon, faced by Second Division opponents, and anxious to avoid the complication of another replay, Robson is certain to restore Beck to his line-up.
His other imports might have stolen the limelight this season but Robson would probably agree that just as it is fair to say that Boro play when Juninho plays, the same dictum applies with Beck. He may not quite be a finisher in the Ravanelli class (ignoring the Italian's Wembley sitter) or a schemer from the Juninho finishing school, but the Danish international has emerged in a central role in the fluid game Middlesbrough strive to play. That much was clear to the discerning eye when Boro clinched their semi-final place. Craig Hignett was the direct supplier of Juninho's brilliant breakthrough goal at the Baseball Ground. But Beck was the architect, with his perceptive diagonal decoy run.
"It's super for a player like me to play with someone like Juninho," he said. "I'd call myself a playing striker - I want to play for the others. I look to combine with them." Beck fulfils a similar function off the field, as the multi-linguist in Robson's multinational force. "I love it here," he said. "There was a lot of criticism earlier in the season but I never took it to heart. I am just happy to be here and happy to play for the team. For the rest of the season we only have big games. That's what it's all about. That's what we're living for. "
Beck, 23, has good reason to relish his working life down at the Riverside. A year ago he was playing in the Bundesliga Second Division with Fortuna Cologne and his subsequent move from the shadows of German football to the spotlight in England was not an easy one. He spent five months in contractual limbo last year fighting for his right to join Middlesbrough. He was held hostage by the Deutsche Fussball-Bund's attempt to counter the Bosman ruling by invoking an item of small-print stipulating a club's right to automatically extend a player's contract by another season in the event of a change in the transfer system. Fortuna refused to allow Beck to join Middlesbrough until his lawyers claimed damages and costs approaching pounds 2m.
"Those five months were a nightmare," he reflected. "It was like living in jail. All I wanted to do was play for Middlesbrough."
Moving to the Premiership has kept Beck in the thoughts of Bo Johansson, Denmark's Swedish coach. Beck played in Euro 96 and has joined a strong contingent of Danish squad members in England, with Peter Schmeichel at Manchester United, Marc Rieper at West Ham, Allan Nielsen at Spurs and Jacob Laursen at Derby. "English football is a special thing in Denmark," he said. "A Premiership game is shown live on television every Saturday and all of the newspapers report about English football."
Beck is not the first player from his town to make it on to the small screen back home via England. Jan Molby is another footballing son of Kolding and the only Dane who has played in three FA Cup finals. He was not the first, however. That honour fell to Jesper Olsen back in 1985. Bryan Robson left Wembley clutching the tin pot on that occasion. He might be doing so with Danish assistance again on 17 May.Reuse content