Football: Flatts offers faith for the future

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Arsenal. . . .1

Middlesbrough. 1

THE TALK afterwards was of a little-known right winger from Wood Green, and as bright as Mark Flatts shone it did tend to underline the inadequacies of those around him. Nevertheless, Arsenal put a point in their Christmas stocking while rediscovering the means towards championship credibility again in the New Year.

When the imposing figure of Kevin Campbell came on to join Alan Smith and Ian Wright late in the second half, the authority which the admirable Derek Whyte and Nicky Mohan had lent to Middlesbrough's containing operation was suddenly no more. With three big men to handle, the defensive expression changed from determined defiance to one of 'who do we pick up now?'

The confusion proved fatal to their hopes of a first win at Highbury since 1939. With eight minutes left, Andy Linighan raised a long ball in Campbell's direction and Jimmy Phillips erred as he attempted to intercept. Campbell's full-blooded swipe rebounded off a post to Wright, who seldom fails when the opportunity demands instinct as against careful thought.

'It suited us better when we have three up,' the Arsenal manager, George Graham, said - no surprise there. Those of us who had not seen Arsenal since the Smith- Wright-Campbell combination dismantled Coventry's unbeaten away record on 7 November wondered just how so emphatic a performance became the prelude to a four-game losing sequence, without so much as a single goal to lighten the Highbury gloom.

The statistics spoke decisively in favour of Smith, who missed that run with a stress fracture and was restored here ahead of schedule, Graham deciding his team could not afford to be without his ability to 'hold things up' any longer. On the evidence of the last 13 minutes, they can still prosper even without any midfield creativity, the glaring weakness in this display, the more so when Paul Merson had to exit at half-time because of an ankle injury. With their powerful triumvirate in harness, anything lobbed up front has a reasonable chance of turning to gold. In fact, Campbell should have won the game when put clean through by Smith in the 87th minute.

The problem for Graham is that his most productive line-up, with Merson in the 'hole' to distribute and ghost into scoring areas, leaves no room for Flatts, who amply justified his manager's contention that he has a 'very big future in the game'.

He possesses an easy and deceptive running style which frequently carried him away from markers, and has a confidence that few of his colleagues shared in a desultory first 45 minutes. 'It's very unusual to have a quick player with a brain,' Graham said. 'Mark has skill but he also has the application to go with it.'

Middlesbrough profited from Arsenal's early shoddiness, which was never better illustrated than when Craig Hignett's surge was blocked only for the ball to ricochet off David Seaman in to the goal. Tony Adams will now miss both Arsenal's Christmas fixtures, so those defensive uncertainties promise to recur.

Goals: Seaman og (34) 0-1; I Wright (81) 1-1.

Arsenal: Seaman; Lydersen, Winterburn, Hillier, Linighan, Adams, Flatts, I Wright, Smith, Merson (Jensen, h-t), Parlour (Campbell, 77). Substitute not used: Miller (gk).

Middlesbrough: Pears; Fleming, Phillips, Mohan, Whyte, Pollock (Proctor, 88), Hendrie, Peake, Wilkinson, Hignett (Falconer, 70), T Wright. Substitute not used: Ironside (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).