Football: Fleming flourish

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The Independent Online
Middlesbrough 2

Ricard pen 83, Fleming 90

Blackburn Rovers 1

Sherwood 56

Attendance: 34,413

GAZZA MIGHT be drying out but Middlesbrough are still intoxicated by the dizzy heights of the top three of the Premiership after snatching an improbable win in the dying seconds of the game that sober reflection will say was as poor as the weather was cold.

As the rain lashed and the wind tore through human flesh, the only warmth in a mind-numbing first half was from the genuine affection with which Paul Gascoigne's name was sung by the crowd.

As that half wore on it degenerated into a pantomime of play-acting and yellow cards. Mikkel Beck, a Dane, was cast as the dame, booked for diving when it seemed more likely that Darren Peacock, already cautioned, would be dismissed for creeping up behind him.

Out of a midfield mess of misplaced passes, ball control and wind-driven balls - a midfield that cried out for a player like Gascoigne in his prime - Middlesbrough fashioned one startlingly clear chance but Beck's point- blank header was saved by Tim Flowers.

Blackburn were the neater side and Kevin Davies could have marked his return after a month's absence as early as the fifth minute. Jason Wilcox, his makeshift striking partner, dispossessed Robbie Mustoe and slipped a ball through the centre of a wide-open defence to Davies, who rustily shot wide.

Four minutes later, the impressive Damien Johnson slithered and slid on a sodden pitch through a succession of challenges but toe-poked wide.

That was all the half had to offer. "It wasn't a classic," admitted the Middlesbrough manager, Bryan Robson, a master of understatement.

Fortunately, as the farce was continuing in the second half, Tim Sherwood gave the game a purpose in the 55th minute when he stooped to head Damien Duff's corner past Middlesbrough's debutant keeper Marlon Beresford.

Boro immediately threw on the substitutes Brian Deane - pounds 3m from Benfica and signed on Friday - and Phil Stamp. Deane added dynamism and Stamp a rare delicacy as, in the 60th minute, he tried to curl Andy Townsend's back-heel around Flowers.

At last in the final 10 minutes the game heated up. Peacock, in his anxiety to clear with Deane breathing down his neck, handled just inside his penalty area. From the spot, Hamilton Ricard, the Premiership's leading scorer, notched his ninth goal of the season.

That was in the 82nd minute and, although Johnson manfully tried to revive Blackburn's lead with a couple of long-range efforts that went whiskers wide, in the 89th minute Middlesbrough somehow snatched a winner. Gianluca Festa's wayward shot was deflected to Curtis Fleming who, as Blackburn looked for an offside, coolly slotted past Flowers.

"It was a crushing blow," said Rovers manager Roy Hodgson. But then this season has been a catalogue of crushing blows.

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