Fine principles but poor response

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A promotional clip for football coverage on BBC radio claims international supremacy for the Premiership. The best league in the world attracting the best players in the world is the corporation's rhetorical message.

The response of everyone who watched this grim 0-0 encounter between Coventry and Middlesbrough would surely be to switch off immediately. Interestingly, this might apply to Coventry's beleaguered manager, Ron Atkinson, who was exceedingly put out by his team's performance.

In private, to put it mildly, Atkinson was fuming. "This is a nice football club," he said, "good people, loyal supporters and they deserved something better."

The door to Atkinson's private room opened and in came the best player he has ever worked with, Middlesbrough's equally troubled manager, Bryan Robson, who after eight successive defeats had begun to wonder where the next point was coming from. "How long have you been in this game?" he asked, then suggested that it might make a lot more sense to take up residence in the Caribbean.

Young and old, sorcerer and apprentice, it gets to them. A point edged Middlesbrough closer to the total of 43 Atkinson reckons to be the safety margin, but it is not what Robson imagined before problems began to crowd in on him. Amidst the excitement of Juninho's arrival on Teesside, what Robson saw was a European adventure to confirm his promise in management.

To their credit, true to the very best principles, neither man has or will opt for the up and under approach that is frequently the resort of managers in trouble. But as Atkinson stressed, the key to survival is passion. "That's what we didn't have today," he said. "In our last match here, against Chelsea, we got the points because we competed better. I thought Middlesbrough played well enough today, but we hardly threatened them. We were so poor in the second half that we might just as well have battered the ball forward."

A thing about professional footballers generally is that they are always looking for excuses. This has nothing to do with conditions of employment, which these days are often out of all proportion to ability and potential. It is in their natures.

Coventry's pitch may have the consistency of Plasticine, but it does not justify a negative attitude. A thought planted forcibly in my youth was that if conditions were poor, you either got on with it or risked the probability of being told to take up alternative employment.

To be fair, Robson could not complain about a lack of commitment. Without Juninho, who is temporarily back in Brazil, and waiting for his compatriot, Branco, to become available, they battled away and Jan Age Fjortoft always looked the most likely scorer.

That Fjortoft is something of a lone ranger may explain Nick Barmby's relative anonymity, but the rangy Norwegian gave Coventry their worst moments. In his first game of the season, Graham Kavanagh was lively too, clipping in one shot that almost caught out Steve Ogrizovic.

The way Middlesbrough's players congratulated each other at the final whistle told of the extent to which their season has disintegrated. There might have been more to celebrate, Ogrizovic's late fumble almost causing Coventry's new signing, Liam Daish, to start with an own goal.

One of the visitors to Highfield Road was the assistant secretary of the Professional Footballers' Association, Brendan Batson. A thought was that he should have gone into Coventry's dressing-room and reminded some of his members of their responsibilities.

Coventry City (4-4-2): Ogrizovic; Pickering (Lamptey, 76), Burrows, Daish, Shaw; Richardson, Telfer (Busst, 41), Jess; Dublin, Whelan, Salako. Substitute not used: Filan (gk).

Middlesbrough (5-3-2): Walsh; Cox, Fleming, Vickers, Whyte, Whelan; Pollock, Mustoe, Kavanagh; Barmby, Fjortoft. Substitutes not used: Hendrie, Hignett, Wilkinson.

Man of the match: Fjortoft.

Referee: P Durkin (Portland, Dorset).

Bookings: Coventry: Daish, Richardson. Middlesbrough: Pollock, Fjortoft, Kavanagh.

Attendance: 18,810.