Middlesbrough last night gained a second successive point, taking their tally to three out of the last 39 available, although Bryan Robson considered it two points lost, given that Aston Villa's priority was to avoid casualties and controversy in the build-up to Sunday's Coca-Cola Cup final against Leeds United.
With Wembley in mind, many Villa supporters elected to save their money, and the crowd of less than 24,000 was Villa Park's lowest of the season in the Premiership. While those who stayed away missed a drab spectacle, they would have been impressed by the performances of the three young players to whom Brian Little handed full League debuts.
In the absence of six of Sunday's probable line-up - four of whom were rested or injured and two suspended - Little blooded Scott Murray, Paul Browne and Lee Hendrie. The latter, bizarrely, was facing his uncle, John Hendrie, who began as Middlesbrough's only out-and-out striker.
Even with two thirtysomethings, Paul McGrath and Andy Townsend, the average age of Villa's 14 was barely 24; a far cry from the ageing team Little inherited from Ron Atkinson. Yet they forced the pace from the start, giving Gary Walsh scope to redeem himself for recent howlers. In the first eight minutes, the former Manchester United keeper swooped to snatch Steve Staunton's cross off the head of Julian Joachim, caught a Townsend header beneath the bar and parried Joachim's drive to safety.
Despite surviving Villa's early charge, Boro looked all too content with the status quo. The departure of Juninho, hurt in a challenge with Alan Wright, hardly seemed calculated to foster bravado.
But surprisingly, the introduction of Craig Hignett gave the visitors fresh impetus. Twice in three minutes Mark Bosnich tipped over goalbound headers, by Nick Barmby and Neil Cox respectively, both chances stemming from corners by Juninho's fellow Brazilian, Branco.
Jamie Pollock put the ball in Villa's net shortly before half-time, only for the referee to rule him offside. Branco failed to appear for the second half, but Boro's confidence was gradually returning against a team finding it increasingly difficult to disguise their makeshift composition.
Not that Little's fledglings let the side down. Lee Hendrie, sent off at QPR in a brief substitute appearance before Christmas, again belied his cherubic features, while Browne was cautioned for a rugged tackle on Barmby. Murray caught the eye with a passable impersonation of the absent Gary Charles, though Villa rode their luck when Barmby shot closer to the corner flag than to goal in a scramble midway through the second half.
Little reported no new injuries afterwards, although he hinted that Tommy Johnson, who has now missed the last nine games, could be struggling to face Leeds.
Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Browne, McGrath, Staunton; Murray (Farrelly, 86), L Hendrie, Townsend, Draper, Wright; Joachim (Davis, 83), Yorke. Substitute not used: Oakes (gk).
Middlesbrough (4-5-1): Walsh; Cox, Pearson, Whyte, Fleming; Barmby, Pollock, Mustoe, Branco (Kavanagh, h-t), Juninho (Hignett, 22); J Hendrie. Substitute not used: Moore.
Referee: P Alcock (Redhill, Surrey).Reuse content