Defiant Robson misses the points

Simon Turnbull tests the mettle of Middlesbrough's embattled manager
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The Independent Online
Captain Marvel was in fighting mood when he led his demoted troops to Wembley yesterday. "We may have lost the battle," Bryan Robson said, "but we are determined to win the war." It was the long-term conflict that Middlesbrough's manager had in mind, the drop zone into which his foreign legionnaires plummeted at Leeds last Sunday. To Elland and back in 12 months is the chief cause for which Robbo and his red-shirted army must now fight.

Their supporting foot-soldiers were of appropriate bunker mentality mood as they gathered beneath the twin towers. "Three points," they chanted as Graham Kelly offered his right hand to the tracksuited line of Middlesbrough players. Whether the FA's chief executive offered Robson the docked points was open to doubt, however. Though Steve Gibson, the Boro chairman, arrived at Wembley pledging to pursue the matter "to its conclusion," it is safe to assume that Middlesbrough's fight against what the world beyond Teesside sees as justice will remain a pointless one.

Boro's only hope of pulling back from the edge of darkness - well, from Edgeley Park, at least - is the kind of fateful intervention which preserved Chelsea's top-flight status after they reached the cup final as a relegated side in 1915. The small matter of the non-football dispute raging on the European mainland prompted the suspension of domestic sport and Stamford Bridge featured on an expanded First Division map when hostilities ceased. All of which left Robson on the brink of a consolation place in football's history books at kick-off time yesterday.

No manager had led his relegated team to victory in an FA Cup final and Robson, who thrice hoisted the tin pot as captain of Manchester United, was anxious for some reward from a rollercoaster season. "Winning the cup would add a gloss," he said on the eve of battle. "But the boys have had a good season. They've got to two cup finals and gained enough points to stay in the Premiership."

Recent back trouble notwithstanding, Fabrizio Ravanelli, the predator from Perugia, was back in the Boro team. It remained to be seen whether Robson was suffering from a bad side. But not for long. When Roberto di Matteo erased Jackie Milburn's name from the record books the Middlesbrough manager, rooted passively to his seat, had that pain in the butt feeling for the first time. By the time he rose at the sound of the half-time whistle, his only relief was that further damage had been restricted to the physical well-being of his starting line-up.

Robson remained silent while first Ravanelli and then Robbie Mustoe withdrew to sit alongside him. And when he strolled towards the tunnel at the break he was confronted by Nigel Pearson and Juninho at apparent odds with each other. Ruud Gullit, by contrast, was a mirror image of his team: a picture of cosmopolitan composure. For the dreadlocked Dutchman, a place in the FA Cup annals was guaranteed, win or lose.

The final's first foreign manager had fields of dreams in mind, however: the foreign ones he graced himself as a Milanese master. The final whistle brought them into sharp focus. As Dennis Wise lifted the cup, Gullit lifted his horizons to Europe and the Cup-Winners' Cup challenge that lies ahead. It was all Robson could do to lift his head, never mind his spirits. His sights are now trained on the grass-roots. As the blue half of Wembley put it: "We're going to Barnsley. You're not."