Ayresome Park was primed, indeed the whole of Teesside has been twitching on a trigger of celebration. 'We've been waiting three months for this,' the PA boomed again, and it was probably understating the case. Middlesbrough has craved the start of the season with the desperation of an addict deprived of a fix.
What a pity, then, that the football failed to live up to the occasion. The crowd was alive with anticipation but the team were struck by a deadly torpor induced by nerves. If it had not been for a flukey first goal, Bryan Robson's first competitive match as Middlesbrough's player-manager might have gone terribly flat.
Even the huge motivational powers of Robson seemed not to be working and Burnley, newly promoted to the First Division, had the better of the first 25 minutes. Then, with Captain Marvel clearly struggling, the great god luck intervened to transform the whole afternoon.
Burnley's goalkeeper, Marlon Beresford, was first to Robson's 28th-minute pass by a margin of about 10 yards. But, instead of taking the time-honoured route of clearing the ball into the stands, he heaved a huge kick straight into the midriff of his colleague Mark Winstanley.
It is unlikely that kindly thoughts went through the centre- back's mind at that moment, but any hope of 'Bad luck Marlon, these things happen' crossing his lips vanished completely when the rebound landed straight at the feet of John Hendrie. The Middlesbrough striker had an open net to aim at and, despite the overwhelming desire he must have had to keel over with a fit of the giggles, he managed to find it.
The goal was pure pantomime but its effect was as dramatic as a Shakespearian soliloquy. Middlesbrough's inhibitions disappeared, and the 11 players who, hitherto, had been on more different wavelengths than Radio Four suddenly looked like the team who have been universally tipped as promotion contenders.
The interchanges that had invariably found an opponent began to go to red shirts and even Clayton Blackmore, whose passing suggested an urgent visit to an optician was necessary, began to find the target. 'The goal settled us,' Nigel Pearson, one of five players making their Middlesbrough debuts, said. 'You need a bit of luck from time to time, but having said that our goalkeeper didn't have a shot to save so you couldn't say the result wasn't fair.'
Robson did not say anything fair or foul because, having talked incessantly to the media for the last month, he, not unreasonably, felt he had little more to add and declined to talk to the press. 'He would have spoken to you if the team had lost,' a club official said. 'But he says he's tired and wants to relax in the bath.'
Anyway, he would have been hard put to be more eloquent about his team's potential than Hendrie's second goal. Paul Wilkinson flicked on down the right flank and his fellow striker cut inside past Winstanley and Chris Vinnicombe before beating Beresford with a low shot inside the left- hand post.
By the end, the Middlesbrough fans were inquiring: 'Are you watching Sunderland?' The answer would have to be: yes. The whole First Division is watching Middlesbrough at the moment. And wondering.
Goals: Hendrie (27) 1-0; Hendrie (35) 2-0.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Miller; Cox, Pearson, Vickers, Fleming; Blackmore, Pollock, Robson, Moore; Hendrie, Wilkinson. Substitutes not used: Whyte, Hignett, Roberts (gk).
Burnley (4-4-2): Beresford; Parkinson, Davis, Winstanley, Vinnicombe; Deary, Harper, Joyce (Lancashire, 63), McMinn; Robinson, Heath. Substitutes not used: Wilson, Russell (gk).
Referee: R Poulain (Huddersfield).Reuse content