Boro's flattering cup image: Football

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The Independent Online
There were questions about the game, his goal and the prospect of becoming the first Italian to play in the FA Cup final. Fabrizio Ravanelli, his mood one of quiet celebration following Middlesbrough's 2-0 FA Cup sixth-round win at Derby County on Saturday, answered them all at length.

Then, inevitably, he was asked if Middlesbrough's cup success changed his view on staying with the club. His brow darkened under the baseball cap. Through his agent and interpreter he explained that he had never said he wanted to leave. "For once and for all I want to say I have a contract at Middlesbrough, my family like living here and this is where I want to be. Some things I have said have been misinterpreted, others are complete fabrications."

The press, undeterred, tried again. "Would you stay if Middlesbrough are relegated?" Now we received a glare usually reserved for referees and over-attentive defenders. "That is an absurd and hypothetical question," he said.

A few minutes later I found myself sharing a taxi with Pino, his agent. "Why do you journalists always ask this question?" he said. "Every time you ask."

My initial response was that it had something to do with the largely London-based media finding it hard to believe that a player like Ravanelli could be happy living in Middlesbrough, especially with the club doing so badly in the Premiership.

"But if the press in Italy had that view," Pino said, "Parma would never have become the great club it is."

The analogy is apt. Seven years ago Parma were a nothing club, they had never won a trophy or even played in Serie A. Now, backed by the vast resources of Parmalat, it is one of Italy's strongest clubs with three European trophies, a domestic cup and two third-place finishes in the last five seasons.

Unlike Parma, Middlesbrough have a past as well as a future. They may never have been to Wembley, or won the League, but they have been a fairly regular member of the top flight since 1902 and have produced some of the legends of the game. Ravanelli, Juninho and Emerson follow in the footsteps of George Camsell, George Hardwick, Wilf Mannion and Brian Clough. In 1966 Ayresome Park, the ground they left two years ago, was a World Cup venue.

The media attitude to Middlesbrough obviously has much to do with perceptions of the town. It is badly served by the railway network and scarred by the ICI plant. However, if we but looked around we would find a lot more unspoilt countryside within 15 minutes of the Riverside than can be reached in that time from Stamford Bridge or Highbury.

What really matters, however, is success on the pitch. And, as Blackburn, another patronised provincial club have found, it needs to be sustained. For all Middlesbrough's investment in stars even initial success is proving elusive. Boro may be on the brink of two finals - they defend a 2-0 Coca- Cola Cup semi-final first leg lead over Stockport at the Riverside on Wednesday - but they are also adrift at the bottom of the Premiership.

"We're going to Wembley twice," sang the Boro fans. "But you're also going to Grimsby," responded a bitter Derby voice.

Boro have won six matches out of 27 in the Premiership, only one of them away. In the cup they have won 10 out of 10, four on the road. This contrast suggests a team which only plays to its potential when it wants to. Bryan Robson did point out Saturday's away win was the first cup success on a Premiership ground but they have beaten Newcastle and Liverpool at home. They have some superb players but they do not, consistently, have the spirit of a Leicester or Wimbledon.

They did on Saturday, but then, it was a big occasion. In a spiteful, niggly opening 20 minutes - started by Ravanelli's foul on Chris Powell - they earned the right to play. Then, through Juninho, they did so.

The little Brazilian was the game's class act. Ravanelli should have scored from his pass after five minutes, Phil Stamp had a shot blocked following another after nine. He had a go himself, after 30 minutes, shooting over after skipping by two opponents, then shooting wide three minutes later. Derby, not heeding the warnings, continued to let him roam and, seven minutes from the break he played a one-two with Craig Hignett, slipped past Christian Dailly and flicked the ball over Martin Taylor.

Derby improved but their only threat was Aljosa Asanovic's free-kicks, for Middlesbrough Mikkel Beck and Hignett each wasted two chances on the break. Finally Juninho picked up the ball in his own half, traded a couple of passes then ran at the Derby goal drawing defenders like moths to the flame. A neat pass to Ravanelli and the White Feather's left foot did the rest.

It was Ravanelli's 25th goal of the season, a good return, but 10 have been against lower division opposition. Perhaps the prospect of scoring 50 goals next season will keep him at the Riverside even if Boro go down.

Goals: Juninho (38) 0-1; Ravanelli (89) 0-2.

Derby County (4-3-3): Taylor; Carsley, Stimac, Dailly, C Powell; Flynn (Rowett, h-t), D Powell (Simpson, 72), Trollope; Willems (Gabbiadini, 83), Ward, Asanovic.

Middlesbrough (4-3-1-2): Roberts; Fleming, Pearson, Festa, Blackmore; Stamp, Mustoe, Hignett; Juninho; Ravanelli, Beck. Substitutes not used: Cox, Vickers, Moore.

Referee: G Poll (Tring). Attendance: 17,567.

Bookings: Derby: Carsley, Flynn, Ward. Middlesbrough: Ravanelli.

Man of the match: Pearson.