Football: Boro's misery deepens

No pace, no points and no plusses for Gascoigne. Fortunately, there is no Keegan either; Sheffield Wednesday 3 Middlesbrough 1 Booth 11, 80 Mustoe 78 Sonner 77 Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 24,534

IT WAS beneath the seven hills of Rome that Paul Gascoigne last showed himself to be a player of effective, if no longer inspirational, international class. In the shadow of Sheffield's seven hills yesterday he looked a player of barely club class. Fifteen months on from his display in the Stadio Olimpico, the faded star of English football failed to shine in this meeting of top-flight low-lights at Hillsborough. Gascoigne spent 45 minutes as a huffing, puffing midfield passenger before being ushered into a sideline seat to watch the second-half completion of Middlesbrough's latest reverse.

Bryan Robson's free-falling team have not won since they left Old Trafford with their sights on Europe the Saturday before Christmas. Bernie Slaven, Boro old boy turned local pundit, chose to celebrate that famous 3-2 victory by baring his behind in the window of Binns department store. But it is Middlesbrough's shortcomings that have been publicly exposed in recent weeks. Two goals by Andy Booth and one by Danny Sonner consigned them to their 10th match without a win. Their slide towards the Premiership's nether region is gathering rapid momentum.

The same cannot be said of the Gazza for England bandwagon. Officially, the portly midfielder was withdrawn at half-time because of a sore knee. But the fact that he had been shown his 12th yellow card of the season, for a post-dated challenge as Sonner passed him by, also influenced Robson's decision. Not for the first time, and with an FA disciplinary hearing to face, Gascoigne looked like a red card waiting to happen as half-time approached. "I didn't want to risk him getting sent-off," Robson confessed.

That Gascoigne was a red-faced and flagging figure, though, must have been a factor too. Kevin Keegan may have the Geordie enigma "in mind" as he ponders his squad for the European Championship qualifier against Poland next month but it was just as well for Gascoigne that he was out of sight of England's part-time caretaker manager yesterday. Keegan was far from the Hillsborough crowd, in the visitors' dug-out at Bootham Crescent in his full-time capacity as Fulham's chief operating officer, but his second-hand reports will tell him what regular Middlesbrough-watchers already know: that, at 31, Gascoigne has lost what speed he once possessed.

He was badly off the pace even before the frustrated lunge at Sonner that drew his 10th minute caution. He was caught in possession by Sonner and brushed aside with nonchalant ease by Petter Rudi as Wednesday ran the midfield show. He managed just the one creative contribution: an inswinging right-wing corner from which Colin Cooper headed narrowly over.

Middlesbrough were better without Gascoigne, with the markedly more mobile presence of Neil Maddison in central midfield. But they lacked the attacking clout to make their fight-back pay after allowing Wednesday to assume total control in the opening quarter. Both Booth and Benito Carbone went close as spectators were still taking their seats and Boro bowed to the Wednesday pressure with 11 minutes on the clock. Booth beat Mark Schwarzer with a low finish after Andy Hinchcliffe found him unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box.

Middlesbrough were in a mess at that stage, ponderous at the back, plodding in midfield and barely perceptible up front. Wednesday took their foot off the pedal, though, inviting Boro forward and into the game as half- time approached. Kevin Pressman had to make a fine reflex save to keep out a downward header by Mikkel Beck, who proceeded to miss one of the sitters of the season after the dithering of Des Walker and Peter Atherton left him with a clear shot at the home goal. Gary Pallister also headed an Andy Townsend free-kick off Pressman's crossbar but the chances dried up for Middlesbrough after the break.

They did find the back of the Wednesday net, Robbie Mustoe bundling the ball past Pressman in the 77th minute - only the second Middlesbrough goal in seven matches. Unfortunately for Boro, though, their breakthrough was sandwiched between the concession of two headed goals. A minute earlier Sonner had risen to convert a Wim Jonk cross and two minutes later Hinchcliffe teed up Booth for the clincher.

"We've got two games at home now," Robson said, "and we've got to turn our season round in them." The Middlesbrough manager has not had the best of times away from home of late.

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