Football: Imports show no stomach for the fight

Coventry City 3 Middlesbrough 0
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If, as Bill Shankly once asserted, Tom Finney could have played in an overcoat, Emerson looked as though he had been reluctant to leave his in the dressing room. From mop to toe, the Brazilian was done up for winter; vest, thigh tights, gloves, the longest shorts available.

Never mind the north-east, how about Coventry on a bitterly cold day in December? A frozen pitch - with all that loot pouring into the Premiership undersoil heating should be a standard requirement - growing more treacherous by the minute. A hardy man's day, or at least a day for players with the right attitude. Stand up, literally, to be counted.

Emerson skidded around unhappily, never sure of his footing; Ravanelli, forever looking at his boots and complaining about misplaced passes, grew more and more frustrated. You could imagine the Italian thinking: `Terrific pay, but what the hell am I doing here?' There was not a great deal from the gloved Juninho, either.

What you had to suspect was that the Coventry manager, Gordon Strachan, wanted to get at Middlesbrough's foreign contingent on a pitch that was barely playable. A safe assumption is that that attitude figured prominently in his instructions.

Afterwards, I fell into conversation about this with Malcolm Allison who was working for a local radio station. "Conditions were far from ideal," he said, "but a lot of it is in the mind. Tell yourself that it's impossible to stand up and you'll keep falling over. I used to tell my players that if they weren't prepared to get on with it I'd have them off."

In the circumstances Middlesbrough had no choice but to go with the men they had available and hope that the necessary commitment would be forthcoming. That it was not deepened the gloom that has replaced earlier optimism. More performances like this and their position may be irretrievable.

Out of the desperate plight they were in a short while ago, Coventry on the other hand appear to be making significant progress. This was their fourth consecutive win, a recovery due in no small measure to the contribution made by Darren Huckerby, who has now scored in the three of four games since arriving from Newcastle.

There was everything in Huckerby's attitude that was lacking in some of the Middlesbrough players. Quick, strong and direct, he caused all sorts of trouble for defenders who frequently gave the impression that retaining an upright position was impossible.

McAllister's balance, touch and forcefulness gave Coventry control in midfield, and it was Huckerby who first benefited. Brushing past Clayton Blackmore, who was one of Middlesbrough's better performers, McAllister set up John Salako for a cross that Huckerby met with a firm header. "I've still got a lot to learn," the 20-year old said. Not about getting on with things, he doesn't.

Mikkel Beck had almost given Middlesbrough the lead when he sneaked in to flick a shot against Steve Ogrizovic (making a record 544th appearance for Coventry), and Ravanelli was unlucky when his diving header hit a post. However, most of Middlesbrough's work was too involved, their intricate passing movements invariably swallowed up on the edge of Coventry's penalty area.

The second half saw Beck get in some threatening low centres from the left but by then Ravanelli was in no mood to attack them, gesticulating angrily when the ball did not reach him.

Coventry's second goal in the 64th minute was a further tribute to Huckerby's strength and persistence. Boring in from the right, he caused so much confusion that Chris Morris fell and handled the ball. McAllister scored from the penalty spot.

With five minutes left Middlesbrough's misery was complete when Paul Telfer's cross caused Neil Cox to head past his own goalkeeper.

By then Bryan Robson's team looked a dejected bunch and left for home in a darkened bus. How they could do with an injection of the attitude that helped to make Robson a famous player.

Goals: Huckerby (29) 1-0; McAlister (64 pen) 2-0; Cox og (85) 3-0.

Coventry City (3-5-2): Ogrizovic; Dublin, Daish, Shaw; Telfer, McAllister, Richardson, Williams, Salako; Whelan, Huckerby. Substitutes not used: Filan (gk), Burrows, Shilton, Boland, Genaux.

Middlesbrough: (3-5-2): Walsh; Cox, Vickers, Morris (Fjortoft, 74); Liddle, Blackmore, Emerson, Juninho, Beck; Ravanelli, Hignett (Campbell, 59). Substitutes not used: Roberts (gk), Robson, Whyte.

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).

Bookings: Coventry: Williams.

Man of the Match: McAllister.

Attendance: 20,617.