Football: Arsenal spoil their old boy's reunion

Middlesbrough 1 Arsenal 2

Paul Merson knows a thing or two about comebacks. After overcoming his addictions and rebuilding his marriage, he was sold by the club he served loyally for 13 years. After overcoming his addiction to Arsenal, he is now rebuilding his career at Middlesbrough to the extent that he has been in the last three England squads.

But not even Merson could overcome the setback Middlesbrough suffered in the first half against his old club. They conceded a goal after just 68 seconds - 23 seconds slower than the one that dashed their hopes against Chelsea in last year's FA Cup final - and by the 17th minute Dennis Bergkamp and Nicolas Anelka were amusing themselves playing head-tennis in Middlesbrough's penalty area, so inadequate was the opposition.

Patrick Vieira was bestriding the midfield like a colossus and Arsenal's travelling support was in full ironic voice singing "Boring, boring Arsenal".

"It was very difficult to enjoy the first half," Merson admitted. "We were getting hammered. It was embarrassing. We were making schoolboy errors all around the pitch. At half time I would have settled for six."

Just before the interval, a chill wind brought a flurry of sleet and an acrid Teesside stench to the nose to complement the vile words on the lips of the Middlesbrough supporters, aimed at their manager, Bryan Robson, who, peculiarly, had rested three established players and thrown youngsters into the trenches against the Gunners.

"It was almost too much for the young players to cope with," Merson said. "We were playing against big, big boys and I felt sorry for the poor young lads. But when you've been on a pitch with Bergkamp, Vieira and Marc Overmars, you come off it a better player."

A charmingly modest man, Merson should have added his own name to the list. For, in the second half, the comeback kid so nearly engineered the most remarkable about-turn of his career.

Running past Tony Adams on to Robbie Mustoe's long pass, he eluded the desperate slide of goalkeeper Alex Manninger and, from an awkward angle, carefully placed the ball between two defenders into the net.

"When I saw it was him with the ball on the right I expected him to punish us, unfortunately," said Arsene Wenger, the man who sold Merson to Boro. "He was Middlesbrough's best player and you can see he's a different class."

Five minutes after his goal, a Merson drag-back, nutmeg and Bergkampesque pass allowed Andy Townsend to score - only for the linesman to disagree. "Andy says he wasn't offside, but I'm not going to do a Gordon Strachan," said Merson with a childish snigger.

There was still time to tee himself up for a 30-yard volley that had Manninger flying, and set up Mikkel Beck for an 87th-minute miss that was so feeble it had the crowd crying.

Merson, though, was all smiles on the final whistle. A pat on the back for Steve Bould, a tap on the head for Adams: a hug for Vieira, an embrace for Bergkamp: high-fives for Ray Parlour, applause for the Middlesbrough end and his shirt for the Arsenal fans.

"It was a mark of appreciation for the last 13 years," he explained. "And to say goodbye."

Just to prove that he was thoroughly addicted to Middlesbrough's push for promotion, he finished by saying: "The biggest disappointment for me was Nottingham Forest winning."

Goals: Overmars (2) 0-1; Parlour (19) 0-2; Merson (62) 1-2.

Middlesbrough (4-3-1-2): Schwarzer; Maddison, Festa, Vickers, Harrison; Ormerod (Hignett, 64), Townsend, Mustoe; Merson; Moreno (Beck, 76), Campbell (Baker, 29). Substitutes not used: Kinder, Summerbell.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Manninger; Dixon (Grimandi, 88), Bould, Adams, Winterburn; Parlour, Vieira, Petit, Overmars; Bergkamp, Anelka. Substitutes not used: Wreh, Boa Morte, Hughes, Lukic (gk).

Referee: M Riley (Leeds).

Bookings: Middlesbrough Baker, Festa.

Man of the match: Merson.

Attendance: 28,264.