Eight games in 26 days for Middlesbrough

Middlesbrough must visit Tottenham in their Premiership survival fight on Thursday week - just two days after their FA Cup semi-final replay against Chesterfield. The new date for the League game was agreed yesterday after police authorities in north London rejected the alternative suggestion of a Friday night kick-off.

In effect, the match has been put back 24 hours from its original date of 23 April, which had to be scrubbed after Second Division Chesterfield forced a 3-3 draw with Middlesbrough on Sunday. Middlesbrough, who start an eight-games-in-26-days finish to the season with their Coca-Cola Cup final replay against Leicester at Hillsborough tonight, backed Manchester United's plea last week to have the season extended to give their players rest between matches. But the Premier League insisted there could be no U-turn, after rejecting United's request.

Middlesbrough, like United, face four games in nine days to complete the season on 11 May. Keeping the Spurs game in the same week as the FA Cup replay was the Premier League's only alternative to an extension.

Another weekend will be lost for League fixtures on 26-27 April when top players report to their countries for the latest round of World Cup qualifiers. England play Georgia at Wembley the following Wednesday.

The Premier League and the Football League have now agreed to set up a special commission to produce a long-term skeleton fixture list - outlining all League, cup, European and international dates covering the next three seasons - to ensure as far as possible that a repeat of this season's congestion does not occur again.

David Elleray, the referee yesterday did his best to deflect growing criticism of his performance in Sunday's Middlesbrough/Chesterfield FA Cup semi-final tie.

Elleray sent one player off, awarded two penalties and was involved in a controversial incident when a Chesterfield shot - as video replays clearly showed - rebounded over the line off the crossbar. Elleray disallowed the goal because of an earlier infringement.

The Harrow schoolmaster sought to broaden the argument to the position of referees in the modern game, rather than commenting directly on the weekend's big game.

He said: "I think referees accept they come under intense scrutiny every day in the media. They have to make an honest decision with their own eyes in a very quick time, and it is not easy."

Some criticism has even come from within Elleray's own ranks, from the former World Cup referee Clive Thomas.

Thomas claimed: "The level of refereeing is so bad. Elleray would not even have made the top six on the Fifa list in my day,"

Elleray would not respond to the remarks, saying only: "I never make a comment on what Clive Thomas has to say about me or refereeing."

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