Football: Boro bring champions down to earth

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The Independent Online
Middlesbrough. . 4

Leeds United. . .1

A 4-1 stuffing - who would have thought it? Ayresome Park has seen some blazing matches between these two old rivals down the years and this particular all- ticket 'Yorkshire Derby' sparked early on, burst into instant life and then crackled along until the final whistle, merrily, too, for the home fans.

The flashpoint came after just seven minutes in an incredible 57-second spell when the Leeds defence was twice caught cold and Paul Wilkinson made them pay dearly for their lack of vigilance, an unexpected embarrassment from which the champions never recovered.

Middlesbrough got it right from the start. With fire in their bellies they hustled a curiously uncertain Leeds out of their attempted multi-passing movement and went on to produce what Lennie Lawrence, their manager, described after the match as: 'The most professional performance I've been associated with in 10 years of management.

'Tactically we were spot-on, and some of my players found a new standard which they hadn't known before.'

If an encounter with the champions is the best guide to a newly promoted team's future, then Middlesbrough, who were immediately relegated after their last promotion to the top division four years ago, will hardly need to rely on their manager's legendary survival skills in the season ahead.

Middlesbrough's spirited all- round performance was in sharp contrast to their opponents' uncharacteristic lack of common purpose at the end of which Howard Wilkinson, the Leeds manager, drew a long breath before saying: 'It's the wrong time to draw conclusions. We were well turned over by a better team - they headed better, tackled better, passed better, finished better. You name it, we didn't do it, you name it, they did do it. All credit to them.' Stumped for an explanation for his side's worst defeat since the 4-0 reverse at Maine Road in April, Wilkinson added: 'I just had a feeling this morning it wouldn't be our day.'

So fierce is competition for places in his side that Wilkinson could not even find a position on the bench for his pounds 2m signing, David Rocastle. No such embarras de richesse for Lawrence. Facing what he thought would be 'the ultimate test' he was again without his valuable keeper Steven Pears, Ian Ironside deputising.

Astonishingly, his team was two up within eight minutes as Chris Fairclough unaccountably let Wilkinson escape twice in a minute.

By delicious irony the creator of both goals was Tommy Wright, bought from Leicester in the summer for pounds 650,000 as a replacement for Stuart Ripley. The Scottish winger, who spent three years with Leeds before he was allowed to leave for Oldham in 1986, had declared prophetically in the match programme that he was looking forward to forming 'a formidable partnership' with Wilkinson. Maybe Leeds should have read the script, for after seven minutes his first cross from the left was diverted by Wilkinson past John Lukic and before we had time to draw breath, Wright angled an even better centre which the Boro' striker bulleted in with his head.

With the Holgate End's taunt of 'One-season wonders' ringing in their ears, Leeds were sorely troubled by the darts of Wright and John Hendrie, and desperately needed someone to play with character and composure. To his credit, Eric Cantona, who had been strolling around with Gallic insouciance, knuckled down to the task, and his persistence brought Leeds' best moments of the half. His inches-wide shot was quickly followed by a finely glanced header which Ironside did well to clutch under the bar. But it was the home side who finished the most impressive.

Inevitably, it was that man Wright, having the game of his life, who sneaked in to capitalise on Leeds's vulnerability to the cross. Just two minutes after the interval Jimmy Phillips sent in the corner and the winger rose to head it high over Lukic. Leeds were now well out of their comfort zone and showing distinct signs of stress when Hendrie, another of their old boys, rubbed it in with a low drive inside the far corner in the 58th minute.

Although Cantona pulled one back with a neat volley, the game ended in familiar flow with the Boro' holding sway over a shaky Leeds defence.

Middlesbrough: I Ironside; C Morris, J Phillips, A Kernaghan, D Whyte, A Peake, B Slaven (J Pollock, 76 min), W Falconer, P Wilkinson (R Mustoe, 45 min), T Wright, J Hendrie. Sub not used: B Roberts (gk). Manager: L Lawrence.

Leeds United: J Lukic; J Newsome (G Strachan, 45 min), T Dorigo, D Batty (S Hodge, 75 min), C Fairclough, C Whyte, E Cantona, Rod Wallace, L Chapman, G McAllister, G Speed. Sub not used: M Day (gk). Manager: H Wilkinson.

Referee: D Allison (Lancaster).

Goals: Wilkinson (1-0, 7 min); Wilkinson (2-0, 8 min); Wright (3-0, 47 min); Hendrie (4-0, 58 min); E Cantona (4-1, 68 min).