Football: Jolt from Johnson

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The Independent Online
Watford. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Johnson 57

Middlesbrough. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Blackmore 34

Attendance: 9,478

BRYAN ROBSON's avowed intent on his new pilgrimage is to infuse Middlesbrough with the expansive spirit of

Manchester United. But being the canny character that he is, he knew that progress would take longer than merely the month of August. Now Teesside, indeed the rest of a First Division that will take heart, knows it too.

Flattered, on yesterday's evidence, by four opening wins, they came to Vicarage Road having assumed the leadership of the division. Ninety minutes later, after failing to punish properly a team reduced to 10 men after the first-half sending- off of their goalkeeper and having conceded their first goal of the season to a Watford side showing commendable character, they had retained the top spot but with their invincibility undermined.

There was evidence that they will remain in the hunt, notably from a solid central defence well marshalled by Nigel Pearson and a midfield in which Clayton Blackmore and Robson, though rarely influential yesterday, are experienced foils for the promising Jamie Pollock.

Though he was the most guilty of profligacy yesterday, Pollock was at least prepared to take responsibility and shoot. Up front Paul Wilkinson and John Hendrie were dominated by David Holdsworth and Colin Foster. The Bolivian striker Jaime Moreno, for whom they are prepared to pay pounds 250,000, is in the fifth week of waiting for a work permit.

At first it seemed Middlesbrough would stride comfortably to a club-record start of five consecutive wins as they showed why they had stolen a march on the division. Attacking with a swiftness that was suited by a rain-slicked surface of the type players enjoy, it was they who looked the home side.

They might have had an early lead when shots by Pollock and the neat left-winger Alan Moore were blocked and Moore also shot across goal. When the busy little big man Andy Hessenthaler did the same for Watford, it was more a break on the counter-attack.

Robson, having hot-footed it from his other role as an England coach, gave notice of the potency as a player he still occasionally retains when he brought down a clearance on his chest and sent in a volley that Kevin Miller held. Watford should have taken more heed.

Miller should have taken more care. When Robson chased Moore's pass midway through the first half, the goalkeeper made no allowance for the conditions and sent him sprawling at the edge of the area. Even before the referee, Clive Wilkes, had brandished a red card merited by the tackle's recklessness, Perry Digweed was removing his tracksuit on the sidelines. The unfortunate Dominic Ludden, making his first appearance since his pounds 60,000 move from Leyton Orient, was the man chosen to make way for the substitute goalkeeper.

It looked to be a turning point as within 12 minutes Middlesbrough had the lead. Neil Cox, their pounds 1m signing, skipped past Tommy Mooney, a striker, on the right flank Ludden had previously been defending and sent in a low cross which Foster cleared only to Blackmore. A free transfer from Manchester United but proving his value - and Wales will miss him as he pulled out of their squad last night with sciatica - he drove home from 18 yards into the corner of the net.

Late in the second half he also sent a header spinning over the bar and Pollock waged a one-man campaign against Digweed that the goalkeeper resisted well. But Watford had already earned the equaliser their spirit deserved.

The busy Hessenthaler, after a free-kick, crossed from the left and the ball was cleared only to Richard Johnson, a tireless worker in front of his back four, some 25 yards out and his low drive was deflected home off Pearson.

'It's a moral victory for us,' said the Watford manager, Glenn Roeder, though Moralee, Jamie that is, could not quite convert a late chance. Watford's charming old Rookery End with its splendid old clock atop, over which Luther Blissett used regularly to balloon the ball into the allotments, has been razed in preparation for the latest happy product of the Taylor Report and leaves Vicarage Road looking much like the team these days: three-parts refurbished.

Roeder says he still needs a new striker but then, as Middlesbrough's finishing revealed, outside of the Premiership, who doesn't?

(Photograph omitted)