Emerson primed for ejector seat

Simon Turnbull meets Middlesbrough's 'other' Brazilian, whose efforts have fallen some way short of his reputation

It was another brilliant performance by Middlesbrough's Brazilian genius. Having mastered the English language almost as well as he has the English game, Juninho's form was the highlight of the FA Cup final media day at the Riverside Stadium.

Informed of Ruud Gullit's aversion to man-marking, he replied: "Oh, I feel very happy now." Asked which FA Cup final memories he held from his childhood, he returned the question: "Being honest?"

It was such a spellbinding show nobody in the audience turned round when Boro's boyish Brazilian was asked for whom he had voted in the PFA awards, and a voice at the back of the room shouted, "For me".

Considering Emerson conducted his interview in Portuguese, few could have suspect- ed the quip had come from the man whose own samba beat has long since slowed to a mournful drum-roll down at the Riverside.

As a matter of fact, Juninho cast his vote for Gianfranco Zola, the blue- shirted genie against whose magical powers his own will be inevitably compared on Saturday.

Emerson has topped one poll at the end of his first, and surely last, season in English football. The readers of Fly Me To The Moon, Middlesbrough's out of this world fanzine, voted him the biggest disappointment of the season.

Questioned about his maligned compatriot, Juninho mustered a loyal defence. "Emerson has been playing very well," he maintained. "I don't know why some criticise him. He did very well this season. He had great games. He helps Middlesbrough a lot."

It was a shame Paul Daniels, Teesside's less gifted conjuror, was absent. "Not a lot," just about sums up Emerson's contribution to Middlesbrough's cause in the three seasons he has spent in England: autumn, winter and spring.

Since he went Awol in November, citing first a sick aunt and then a sick wife, the midfielder's influence has been minimal. The cracking semi-final goal he scored against Chesterfield stands out as much for its rarity value as for its own merit.

The early season queue of admirers lining up to back Bobby Robson's assessment of the pounds 4m man he sold from Porto as "the new Bryan Robson" disappeared as the clocks went back and Emerson went back to Brazil.

Instead, he is preparing to play Boro villain to Juninho's hero on the Wembley stage after the disappearing trick he performed down the Elland Road tunnel while his club's Premiership fate still hung in the balance last Sunday.

"I was upset with myself, only myself," Emerson claimed, through his interpreter, yesterday. "I wanted to be on the pitch, helping my colleagues."

The uncapped Brazilian was conspicuous by his absence from morning training on the Riverside pitch, nursing an injured knee which is not expected to keep him out of tomorrow's probable swan-song for the high profile members of Boro's foreign legion. Emerson's feet were under a table in the Camsell Suite but he did not look like a man settled into life at the Riverside.

"It was the right decision to come here and I've never regretted it," he said, before perhaps betraying his intentions. "The culture in this country is very different but it was a very good experience.

"Now I'm only concentrating on the FA Cup final. It's the biggest and most important final in club football and I hope I'll be 100 per cent fit for it. I'll think about next season later. Whether we win the Cup or not I'll need time to think about it and it's too early to say now."

It remains to be seen if any of the Continent's major clubs will be interested in one of the Premiership's major underachievers. Steve Gibson, Middlesbrough's chairman, may regret the short shrift he gave to Bobby Robson's pounds 5m bid from Barcelona when Emerson was threatening not to return from Brazil.

Not that the man himself was about to accept responsibility for his substandard displays. "I think all the criticism has been because of jealousy," he said. "The press did not think Middlesbrough could bring top class players to the North-east."

It is a shame for Middlesbrough and for Emerson that, in their fans' view, only one of the top-class players they are taking to London on Saturday is Brazilian.

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