Paul Merson, it seems, is not destined for Davy Jones' locker-room down on the south coast. On the day he got the call to rejoin the big fish in the England pool, the man Bryan Robson hooked for pounds 4.5m in the summer responded to reports of imminent bait from Southampton by saying: "I want to stay here at Middlesbrough."
Down at the Riverside yesterday it was clear that Merson was way above his depth in first division of the Nationwide League. For 20 minutes he stood out head and shoulders, probing with such purpose and precision he threatened to sink Sheffield United virtually single-handedly.
It was his measured free-kick from the right, headed on by Gianluca Festa, which supplied Middlesbrough with their 18th minute lead, Mikkel Beck netting at the far post with an angled left-foot drive. But then the tide turned, suddenly and decisively.
In the instant Festa and Nigel Pearson stood waiting for the flag that was never raised, control of the game passed over to Sheffield United. It was not just that Brian Deane, having sprung the rusty offside trap, strode forward to slide an equalising shot under the diving Mark Schwarzer. Middlesbrough simply performed football's equivalent of spontaneous combustion.
Instead of pulling together in support of Merson, they lost all shape. They might have regained their former composure if the cross their England man whipped in for Pearson had been headed the other side of the post eight minutes before the break. As it was, Merson descended to the ineffectual depths of his colleagues, aggravating a lingering groin problem in the process, though not at the expense of his international call. "I'll just get some physiotherapy when I join the squad," he said.
Ultimately, Middlesbrough were outplayed by the only team in England's four professional divisions still boasting an unbeaten record in league and cup competitions.
It was not difficult to see why Nigel Spackman's Blades have become the untouchables. Vassilis Borbokis supplied their most cutting edge yesterday. A team-mate of Temur Ketsbaia at AEK Athens last season, he gave a razor sharp wing-back performance. It was his free-kick that Dane Whitehouse headed in for the winner. Thus the two Danes had the first and last words on the scoresheet.
Goals: Beck (18) 1-0; Deane (22) 1-1; Whitehouse (58) 1-2.
Middlesbrough (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Fleming, Festa, Pearson, Kinder; Stamp (Ormerod, 66), Emerson, Mustoe, Townsend; Merson; Beck. Substitutes not used: Liddle, Freestone.
Sheffield United (3-5-2): Tracey; Holdsworth, McGrath, Tiler; Borbokis, Patterson, Marker, Whitehouse (Ward, 83), Quinn; Deane, Kachuro (Scott, 69). Substitute not used: Hutchison.
Referee: C Wilkes (Gloucester).
Bookings: Middlesbrough: Fleming. Sheffield United: Tiler, Patterson.
Man of the match: Boborkis.
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