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Football: Boro take Pride without Gascoigne

Derby County 1 Burton 41 Middlesbrough 3 Deane 9, Ziege 20, Ricard pen 66 Half-time: 1-2 Attendance: 24,045
ANOTHER TURBULENT passage in the life of Paul Gascoigne ended with a twist in the story at Pride Park, when the 32-year-old midfielder failed to appear in Middlesbrough's side, sparking immediate speculation that he might have been too distressed to play after the jailing of his best friend on Friday. His absence was not to his team's detriment but leaves the England coach, Kevin Keegan, with even less time in which to judge whether he is ready to return in next month's European Championship qualifiers.

On the field, Middlesbrough quickly gained the upper hand and were always in control after goals by Brian Deane and their German international wing- back, Christian Ziege, within 20 minutes. Deon Burton raised Derby's recovery hopes but the visiting side, spurred by Paul Ince's midfield drive, gained more breathing space through Hamilton Ricard's penalty.

But what of Gascoigne? It had been a difficult week for him, what with the tabloids accusing him of a drinking binge (Tuesday, at Hugh Grant's movie premiere) and then his renowned soul-mate, Jimmy "Five Bellies" Gardner, sentenced to six months in prison (Friday, at Newcastle Crown Court).

But neither of these events was to blame for his not taking part, according to Bryan Robson, the Middlesbrough manager. Gascoigne had been treated for a "tight hamstring" last Wednesday and was now suffering from sciatica but was "always going to be left out anyway" as part of a planned rotation of his midfield players.

"Three games in a week is hard for players to cope with, especially at the start of the season," Robson said. "Paul Ince missed the first game and Andy Townsend has only started two. Gazza was fine mentally and could probably have got through the game but I was always planning to rest him."

Robson did not explain his failure to mention this plan ahead of yesterday's match and when asked whether Friday's court case had affected the player, he replied: "I'm not even going to talk about that. I don't know where this thing about Gazza's mental state has come from. He's fine and anyone who saw him against Wimbledon last week would have no doubts over his physical fitness."

Gazza or no Gazza, it mattered little to Middlesbrough against a Derby side who seemed more distracted than their opponents. The visitors drove forward at every opportunity and an unsettled Derby defence yielded goals to Deane after nine minutes and Ziege after 20.

The defending of the first was poor. O'Neill's corner from the left was headed towards his own goal by Burton, stabbed at by Ricard and finally blasted in by Deane from close range. Little could have been done to prevent the second, although Jacob Laursen's tug at Deane's shirt was unnecessary. The result was a free-kick from 25 yards, to the right of Mart Poom's goal, which Ziege curled into the top corner with the aplomb of a David Beckham or Gianfranco Zola.

Derby did wake up after that. Mark Schwarzer saved Boro once by beating out a fierce volley from Mikkel Beck but had no answer when Burton, making a first appearance of the season, drilled an angled shot into the roof of the net from 10 yards four minutes before half-time.

The second half saw new personnel and tactics from Derby, with an ineffective Francesco Baiano removed, along with Beck. The revisions forced the visitors to spend longer in their own half but all was undone after 66 minutes when the Derby defender Horacio Carbonari was ruled to have hauled down Ricard in the penalty area. The Colombian rose to his feet to take the kick and stroked the ball home as Poom dived in the wrong direction.