Football: Hignett braced for top flight

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The Independent Online
Middlesbrough 4 Oxford United 1

THERE were end-of-term tears again on Teesside yesterday. Unlike 12 months ago, they were shed in joy, not sadness. The carnival scenes which followed the final whistle at the Riverside Stadium confirmed that Middlesbrough had gone to Elland and back in one season.

At Leeds a year ago, when the final whistle was blown on Boro's ill-fated Premiership survival fight, Bryan Robson strode from the dug-out to console the tearful Juninho. Yesterday, after Middlesbrough reclaimed a place among English football's elite, their manager left his players to savour the celebrations.

"This is a hell of a lot better feeling than last year," Robson said as the retiring Nigel Pearson led the Boro players on a lap of honour. The 30,228 crowd, a record for the Riverside, roared in appreciation - and in relief.

For 45 minutes, the expected promotion party threatened to turn flat. Middlesbrough's first-half play was as patchy as their pitch. The sight of Paul Gascoigne floating free-kicks out of play - not once but twice - and of Paul Merson struggling to control scraps of possession were tell- tale signs of a team creaking under pressure.

Frustration spread from the stands to the pitch as the small band of Oxford supporters relayed news of Sunderland's 2-0 lead at Swindon before the interval. Boro were in a shambolic state by then. Only once in the first half did they force a save from Phil Whitehead and, even then, the Oxford goalkeeper merely had to stretch to parry Merson's 37th-minute drive.

It was, however, a rather different story after the break. It took precisely 45 seconds for the creeping fear to disappear. Merson clipped a ball to the right edge of the Oxford penalty area and Alun Armstrong controlled it with his right knee before rifling a low shot between Whitehead and the far post.

Two minutes later, Merson broke on the right and cut the ball across the goalmouth for Armstrong to score his second with a side-footed finish. The young Tynesider thus emerged as the unlikely decider of the promotion battle between the teams from the Tees and the Wear.

He had been expected to end his season with a back operation last Thursday. Instead he hobbled into training and asked to be considered for yesterday's decider. "It was a gamble," Robson said. "He had to have an injection this morning. But he can have the operation now."

The brace took Armstrong's tally to seven goals since his pounds 1.5m acquisition from Stockport in February. He will clearly be an asset for Boro in the Premiership next season.

The same may not be true of Craig Hignett, who accounted for the other half of Middlesbrough's goals yesterday. His midfield dynamism has been one constantly impressive feature in Boro's recent history, though it remains to be seen whether Robson values the Merseysider highly enough to resolve the contract dispute that has put him out of the first-team picture of late.

Hignett proved his worth yesterday, with a right-foot drive that crashed in off a post in the 56th minute and a hooked shot which flashed past Whitehead six minutes later. Nicky Banger had the final say on the scoresheet, pivoting on the penalty spot and shooting under the diving Mark Schwarzer with 20 minutes left. It was not, however, the final word. That was roared as the Riverside emptied: "Are you crying, Sunderland?" It can be a cruel game, as they used to say on Teesside.

Goals: Armstrong (47) 1-0; Armstrong (49) 2-0; Hignett (56) 3-0; Hignett (62) 4-0; Banger (70) 4-1.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Fleming, Festa, Pearson, Harrison; Hignett, Mustoe, Gascoigne, Townsend; Merson, Armstrong (Ricard, 66). Substitutes not used: Kinder, Beck.

Oxford United (4-5-1): Whitehead; Robinson, Davis, Gilchrest, Marsh; Beauchamp, Smith, Gray, Murphy (Banger, 66), Powell (Remy, 64); Francis (Cook, 84).

Referee: P Richards (Preston).

Booking: Oxford: Gray.

Man of the match: Festa. Attendance: 30,228.