Football: Long-serving Mustoe the Boro boy made good

Simon Turnbull speaks to the midfield fixture at the heart of the Riverside revival
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ROBBIE MUSTOE was struggling. "Ooh, I can't remember," he said, digging into his memory bank. "Erm, Simon Coleman? No... Bernie Slaven? Mark Proctor?" Middlesbrough's midfield fixture could, in fact, only name three of the colleagues who played with him in his first Tees-Tyne derby: Colin Cooper, Jimmy Phillips and Paul Kerr. It was not entirely surprising. The local dispute in question does, after all, date back to 24 September 1990, when the twin strike force facing Boro comprised Mick Quinn and Mark McGhee - and when Paul Sweeney and Wayne Fereday could be found in the enemy camp too.

"Do you know, that really seems like an eternity ago," Mustoe said, looking back on Friday before looking forward to Newcastle's visit to the Riverside Stadium today. It was on that night eight years ago that Mustoe first made his mark as a Boro boy, scoring both goals in a 2-0 Rumbelows Cup win at Ayresome Park. He has been making his mark with Middlesbrough ever since.

Countless others have come and gone. Cooper has even gone and come back again - as the 16th of the 17 pounds 1m-plus signings Bryan Robson has made. But Mustoe, bought for pounds 375,000 from Oxford by Colin Todd in 1990, has remained in the heart of the Middlesbrough team. He even survived the spell when he lost his place to his manager, Robson passing the midfield holding role back to him after the first seven games of the 1994-95 season.

It is a testimony to the understated talents of the Oxford United graduate that he has become that rare football species: a Borosaurus. At Highbury last Sunday he showed why he has made it through Boro's turbulent past to their buoyant present - and why, at the age of 30, he has a central part to play in the Teesside club's seemingly bright future. Mustoe was the pivotal performer as Middlesbrough, the Premiership makeweights of two years ago, more than matched the reigning champions.

After eight years of trials and tribulations - three promotions, two demotions, three cup finals, the no-show at Blackburn and the mutinous machinations of foreign legionnaires - Boro's senior servant has finally found himself in a settled side making promising headway in the upper half of the Premiership. "This season we're trying to establish ourselves a little bit," Mustoe said, taking a lunchtime break in Middlesbrough's palatial new training complex. "We have been up and down over the years but everything is in place here now. We've got a great stadium and this unbelievable training ground. The chairman's got his whole heart in the club. We've got Bryan Robson as manager. The whole structure of the club is right.

"A lot of big names have come and gone, for different reasons, but I think the signings we've made this season have been really good ones: Dean Gordon, Gary Pallister, Colin Cooper, Brian Deane. They're players who have proved themselves in the Premiership - a lower risk, if you like. They've come here and worked hard and they want to do well at the club. Maybe some players in the past have been a bit mercenary. But the squad we've got together now... everybody works hard for each other. There are no problems in the dressing-room. Maybe that's why we've done a lot better so far this time."

The new-broom spirit in the Boro dressing-room was certainly evident at the pounds 6m Rockliffe Park complex on Friday lunchtime. Andy Townsend was being interviewed in the foyer when Paul Gascoigne descended the stairs from the restaurant and, in tribute to his team-mate's rather dazzling shirt, burst into a chorus of "Purple Rain". The television crew, working for a Middle East network, were appeased by the bonus of Gascoigne joining his midfield colleague in front of the camera, though what an Iraqi audience might make of the artist formerly known as the clown prince is anyone's guess.

There was, though, a time when even the middle east of England was not the slightest bit interested in the happenings at Middlesbrough Football Club - a time Robbie Mustoe has lived through in his eight years on Teesside. "I've enjoyed all my time here," he said. "I've never had any desire to leave. I have sometimes wondered whether I've missed out a bit on the money side by not moving clubs. But my family are settled here and I've had a great time.

"In some respects, it's been a bit like moving anyway, going to play in a new stadium and coming to a training ground like this. It's almost as if I've joined a different club."