Football: No messing at the Riverside

Middlesbrough's flirtation with flash is over - now it's strictly business. By Andrew Longmore
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The Independent Online
No TEAM with Paul Gascoigne in its ranks will ever lack fanfares, but there is a sense of softly softly about Middlesbrough's return to the Premiership. No flash jewellery this time, no Ravanelli or Juninho, just Paul Merson and Gary Pallister, and Branca and Gazza, two thirty somethings who sound like a couple in EastEnders. Awaydays to the wilderness have proved a chastening experience for the top brass at the Riverside.

"We're older and wiser and, we like to think, a lot stronger this time," said Viv Anderson, the assistant manager. "We've been to Wembley cup finals, we've been to Bury and Crewe and we want to go back to Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal." Or, today, Villa Park.

The first 90 minutes of the season were enough to signal the end of the Premiership's true crazy gang. A dour 0-0 with Leeds United prompted fond memories of the 3-3 draw with Liverpool (Ravanelli 3) which christened the spanking new Riverside stadium two years ago and kick-started a harum- scarum ride worthy of Indiana Jones.

Through two cup finals, the first in the club's history, through farce and mayhem, Middlesbrough careered before crash-landing painfully back in the Nationwide, courtesy of three docked points for a no show at Blackburn. To most, this was the fitting end of a morality tale. The Club that Got too Big for its Boots had been cut down to size. Yet the Premiership should be thankful to Middlesbrough. Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, clubs of wealth, tradition and glamour, had always been able to shop abroad. But if Teesside could be made to resemble the Copacabana, money's persuasive tongue was talking a whole new language.

"We've all learnt lessons the hard way," Anderson added. "That goes for the chairman, the chief executive, Bryan [Robson], myself and the players. The problems of temperament we had with Emerson and Ravanelli have been well documented. Rav was a selfish person and that rubbed off on the rest of the players. This time we have turned to tried and trusted players, players who have been there and done it. There is a great spirit in the dressing-room."

That hard-fought point eight days ago was evidence of the new grit. "A game we definitely would have lost two seasons ago," Anderson admitted. Equally eloquent of changed ways - or tightened purse strings - was the inclusion of Robbie Stockdale and Craig Harrison, 19 and 20 respectively, early products of a thriving youth policy. Next month, a new pounds 8m training ground, which houses the club's academy of excellence, will open in Darlington.

"It's easy to say that it was all the fault of foreign players last time," Anderson continued. "But Juninho was fantastic for us and would still be here if we hadn't gone down. He's still a cult figure on Teesside. And we have Branca and Festa, not a hint of a problem with either of them."

Quite where Gascoigne fits in to the new sobriety in the North-east is hard to fathom. To tried and trusted, add trouble, pounds 3.4m worth. Anderson and Robson, old friends from their days together for England and United, seem to have adopted another maxim: better the devil you know. Last weekend the managerial pair acted as chaperones for Gascoigne, taking him back to Manchester where he stayed with Robson, anywhere to get the Geordie out of Geordieland. When most of the country have tired of the old tales, Robson and Anderson are banking on their ability to sift the best from the worst. In that, they have had unwitting help from Glenn Hoddle, whose printed revelations have swung at least some of the public tide back the way of the errant genius. Whether it has provoked Gascoigne enough to get his own back on the field could lie at the heart of Middlesbrough's fortunes. A fit and firing Gascoigne would be an asset to any club. But we have been saying that for eternity. Anderson says it once again.

"If he can get through six or seven games without any problems, I think we'll see a different Paul Gascoigne," he said. "He's not had that level of consistent fitness for some time now. We know every little bit there is to know about Paul. Anyone who has worked with him knows that he just wants to play. On the pitch, at training, in the dressing-room, he's a great guy to have around, it's just when he gets injured and bored, he goes off at a tangent.

"If anyone can get the best out of him, it is Bryan. Paul looks up to Bryan, that's one of the reasons he came here. Another is that he wants to prove himself in the Premiership. What's surprised me is that he's a far, far better player than I thought he was. You're never going to stop him off the field 100 per cent, but we'll just keep chipping away."

The centre of a midfield three, Anderson believes, is Gascoigne's ideal position these days where his eye for a pass and control of it is best exploited. On Saturday, in the absence of Mikael Beck and Branca, Middlesbrough played without a recognised striker, a formation borrowed from the Dutch, who Anderson watched three times in the World Cup. The danger comes from shaping a side round the rotund figure. As Terry Venables knew, Gascoigne is a luxury extra not a vital cog.

Either way, fans at the Riverside - all 31,000 season ticket holders - could be grateful for the entertainment value. "We need to add three or four players to the squad and we've still got a few bob to spend," said Anderson. It will be spent wisely. The high rollers have turned insurance brokers.