Football: Best of both worlds eludes Villa

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The Independent Online
IN FOOTBALL, as in life, patience is a virtue and Premiership spectators have rarely needed it more than on Saturday when four matches were goalless and another two decided by a single strike.

Patience being as rare in football as in life, this would normally lead to much gnashing of teeth, or "goal rage" to borrow the current vernacular. On Teesside, however, there was relative contentment, at least by the hyperventilating standards of the Premiership. Aston Villa, having come for a point, were satisfied to have gained it; Middlesbrough, having lost three successive matches, were pleased to have ended that debilitating run and to have done so with a performance of some gusto.

Villa's joy at a solid defensive performance will doubtless have receded slightly when they discovered Chelsea had won up the A19 at Newcastle to knock them off top spot but they concentrated on taking a long-term view.

Though John Gregory ducked the post-match formalities, Steve Harrison, the assistant coach, offered a convincing impersonation of his master's voice when he said: "It doesn't matter who's top now, it's about being in the frame, then doing it in the final furlong."

The horse racing reference was unfortunate given that the most lively exchanges of the afternoon had been the verbal spat between supporters debating Paul Merson's acrimonious departure from the Boro, but we knew what he meant. In the word of the day - it was much aired at St James' Park and Highbury as well - Villa were "resilient". They thus remain championship contenders though, until they can combine defensive organisation with attacking brio, rather than achieving one at the expense of the other, it is hard to see them emerging winners. Perhaps the pursuit of Juninho, which was given fresh impetus by the Brazilian's agent at the weekend, might solve the quandary.

Juninho, of course, was once of the Teesside parish and is still remembered with affection. The disappointment of his departure is just one of many reasons why they, too, are now taking the long-term view. Having narrowly survived extinction in the 1980s then recruited Bryan Robson as manager Middlesbrough had returned to the Premier League in 1995 bursting with impatient ambition. Relegation, and the travails with Emerson and Ravanelli, induced patience and this time the foundations are more solid.

Off the pitch the Riverside has been further developed - Saturday's attendance was a record - while a new state-of-the-art training complex has been opened near Darlington.

The club have also been rewarded for persevering with Bryan Robson whose maturing management led him to buy more judiciously this time with Gary Pallister, Colin Cooper and Dean Gordon confirming an attention to defence which was neglected last time up. Not that Robson can entirely resist the allure of the exotic as last spring's acquisition of Paul Gascoigne underlined.

Gascoigne, now 31, was quietly impressive on Saturday but remains some way off a return to national colours. His passing and awareness remain as good as ever and his strength is returning. This was his 20th game of the season and the 10th he has finished. However, it was only his fourth full game in three months and he is far from match sharp, will never regain his pace, and still has reckless moments. On Saturday he was booked for catching Lee Hendrie in the face - rash rather than malicious but still foolish - and lucky not to make contact with a wild lunge at Steve Watson. Though he was contrite afterwards the damage could have been done.

"He is enjoying his football and is back to his best," said Robson adding, "his work-rate was good." Gascoigne himself said "I felt good, I felt fit. Sometimes it doesn't matter if you're not up with the pace of the Premiership if you've got the ability to trap the ball and pass it in the right direction and work hard for the team.

"The England situation is in Glenn Hoddle's hands, if I get picked I get picked, if I don't, I don't. I'm just enjoying playing for my manager [Robson]. He's given me a lot of support since the World Cup. I've played some good games for Middlesbrough and some bad ones. As long as I keep enjoying my football for Boro that's fine... but it would be nice to have a farewell game for England, for the fans."

And for himself. If Gascoigne can continue to avoid problems off the pitch and improve his physical and mental fitness an England recall is not beyond reach, though it is unlikely to happen until late spring.

He certainly remains the great patriot, rounding off his day with an attack on the more dilettante foreign players - of which Boro have had a bellyful - on Match of the Day. Having said, "there is so much English talent coming through, I get so proud to see it," Gascoigne added: "I don't like the foreigners coming in and moaning the League's too long, or they need more days off, or going away from their clubs and not returning. They come into the English game and should respect it and not complain. Our captain Andy Townsend is 35 and I never hear him saying there is too much football. Sometimes you can't get enough football because it is a great game and the supporters pay good money."

Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Schwarzer; Festa, Vickers, Pallister; Fleming, Townsend, Gascoigne, Maddison, Gordon; Ricard (Beck, 85), Deane. Substitutes not used: Summerbell, Stamp, Stockdale, Beresford (gk).

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Oakes; Ehiogu, Southgate, Barry; Watson, Scimeca (Grayson, 69), Taylor, Hendrie, Wright; Joachim, Dublin. Substitutes not used: Vassell, Draper, Collymore, Rachel (gk).

Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield).

Bookings: Middlesbrough Gascoigne, Ricard; Villa Barry.

Man of the match: Southgate.

Attendance: 34,643.

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