Football: Middlesbrough in better shape for survival war

Without their prima donnas of the past, Bryan Robson's team have a fighting chance.
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The Independent Online
MIDDLESBROUGH WILL have made it to Elland and back when Saturday comes. Fifteen months after their tearful departure from the Premiership stage at Leeds, the Teessiders return to the top flight with a first-day fixture against George Graham's team at the Riverside Stadium.

The Premier League computer could not have produced a more poignant opener for Bryan Robson and his re-emergent Boro boys - with the exception, that is, of a trip to Blackburn. The three points Middlesbrough were penalised for failing to show at Ewood Park in December 1996 effectively cost them their first class status the season before last. Ultimately, however, it was their failure to win at Elland Road that sealed their fate.

Saturday's re-match with Leeds would appear an apposite opportunity to compare Premiership Boro past with Premiership Boro present. Appearances, though, can be deceptive. The one certainty about Middlesbrough's first game back in the big league is that the team Robson sends out will not be his first choice XI. It could, in fact, be less than half of his ideal line-up.

The Middlesbrough manager will definitely be without his two main strikers, Alun Armstrong and Marco Branca, both recovering from surgery. He is also likely to be without all three of his central defenders: Gary Pallister, his pounds 2.5m central defensive acquisition from Old Trafford, who has a thigh injury, Gianluca Festa, who has had keyhole surgery on both knees, and Steve Vickers, who is suspended.

With Mark Schwarzer and Paul Gascoigne also on the injured list and rated doubtful, the roll call adds up to a problem Robson could have done without as he prepares for the Premiership relaunch at the Riverside. Middlesbrough can ill afford the handicap of a poor start and, with Paul Merson due to start a three-match suspension after Saturday, the prospect of treading water with a half-strength team is a realistic one for Robson.

At least his troubles are not the same as they were 15 months ago. Back then, Robson had a mutinous crew on his hands as he prepared for the short trip to Elland Road. The dressing-room unrest caused by Fabrizio Ravanelli's disappearance in the week preceding the game, ostensibly for treatment in Perugia, spilled into the public arena. Curtis Fleming articulated the outrage in a local radio interview. "He should be here with us," the Irish right-back said.

Ravanelli returned in time to board the team bus but complained of a wrenched back and spent the afternoon at Elland Road standing alongside the Middlesbrough bench. At one point, midway through the second half, another of the overseas hands ready to jump ship strode off the pitch, past Ravanelli, and directly down the tunnel. The substituted Emerson did not bother to wait to see if his colleagues could save Boro from the drop.

Juninho managed to salvage a 1-1 draw. But it was not enough. The Brazilian - unlike Ravanelli and Emerson - was adored by the Middlesbrough fans and collapsed in tears at the final whistle.

It was his final bow on the Premiership stage but Boro are back, and better equipped too, according to the long-serving Fleming. "The team now is a lot more organised," he said. "The personnel two seasons ago was different. It was difficult for that team to gel together, especially with Juninho floating around all over the place.

"The players here now have specific roles. And we have more experience within the team, too, more Premiership experience."

In Pallister, Merson and Andy Townsend, Middlesbrough certainly have the kind of seasoned Premiership campaigners they lacked two seasons ago. They also have an outstanding last line of defence in Schwarzer, who probably would have saved their top-flight status last time had injury not restricted the Australian to seven games.

Boro have a striking asset, too, in Armstrong, though the assured young centre-forward is expected to be out of action until December after undergoing an Achilles tendon operation. They also, of course, have Paul Gascoigne.

At 31, Gascoigne has yet to play in the Premiership. A calf injury is threatening to delay his debut beyond Saturday and it remains to be seen, and open to considerable doubt, whether he can recapture any of the sparkle with which he last illuminated England's top division - as a Tottenham player in 1991.

Reports of recent drinking exploits suggest all remains far from well with the tragi-comic figure of English football. And this week's portrayal, by Glenn Hoddle, of the tawdry background to Gascoigne's World Cup omission can hardly have restored his mental spirits.

Gascoigne's response when he eventually makes it on to the Premiership pitch is likely to hold the key to his club's - let alone his own - fate in England's top flight this season. If his world falls apart, so could Middlesbrough's - even if they turn up at Blackburn on 3 April.

RINGING THE RIVERSIDE CHANGES

BRYAN ROBSON'S REGULAR PREMIERSHIP TEAM TWO SEASONS AGO

(Based on most appearances in each position)

Gary Walsh (pounds 500,000 from Manchester United)

Neil Cox (pounds 1m from Aston Villa)

Derek Whyte (pounds 900,000 from Celtic)

Steve Vickers (pounds 700,000 from Tranmere Rovers)

Curtis Fleming (pounds 50,000 from St Patrick's Athletic)

Craig Hignett (pounds 500,000 from Crewe Alexandra)

Emerson (pounds 4m from Porto)

Robbie Mustoe (pounds 375,000 from Oxford Utd)

Juninho (pounds 4.75m from Sao Paulo)

Fabrizio Ravanelli (pounds 7m from Juventus)

Mikkel Beck (Free from Fortuna Cologne)

Total cost pounds 19,775,000

BRYAN ROBSON'S LIKELY FIRST-CHOICE XI THIS SEASON

Mark Schwarzer (pounds 1.5m from Bradford City)

Curtis Fleming (pounds 50,000 from St Patrick's Athletic)

Gianluca Festa (pounds 2.7m from Internazionale)

Gary Pallister (pounds 2.5m from Manchester United)

Dean Gordon (pounds 900,000 from Crystal Palace)

Robbie Mustoe (pounds 375,000 from Oxford United)

Paul Gascoigne (pounds 3.45m from Rangers)

Andy Townsend (pounds 500,000 from Aston Villa)

Paul Merson (pounds 4.75m from Arsenal)

Marco Branca (pounds 1m from Internazionale)

Alun Armstrong (pounds 1.6m from Stockport County)

Total cost pounds 19,325,000

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