FOOTBALL: No respite in sight for Middlesbrough

Middlesbrough 1 Bolton Wanderers 4
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The Independent Online

Middlesbrough 1 Bolton Wanderers 4

Lack of experience, Bryan Robson insists, rules him out of contention for the England coach's job. But what defines experience? If it is to have tasted failure as well as success, then Robson does not qualify. However, this might be about to change.

Having led Middlesbrough to the First Division title in his freshman season, there is a growing possibility that Robson will conclude his second year in management waging a battle against relegation.

His team, as brightly impressive as their new stadium when they burst into the Premiership last autumn, are in such poor fettle now that should they lose at Coventry next weekend they will set a club record of nine consecutive defeats. Compared with Bolton they are hardly in dire straits yet but should their rate of decline continue - fourth to 13th in 10 weeks - they soon will be. Even West Ham are above them now.

Saturday's reverse was not so much a disappointment as a humiliation. Bolton, doomed in the eyes of all except those paid to believe otherwise, had not won away since April last year yet registered a victory that in no way flattered them.

Their endearingly adventurous spirit was duly rewarded by Nathan Blake, providing the first, overdue return on Bolton's pounds 1.2m investment, Simon Coleman, capping his first game since breaking a leg a year ago, Fabian DeFreitas and David Lee. The Serbian playmaker, Sasa Curcic, had a part in three of the four goals.

It is all painfully new to Robson. And to the Riverside fans, who have yet to register significant dissent. That may not be long coming. The booing that followed the final whistle on Saturday would have been louder had not at least half of the 30,000 crowd already left.

"They could have shown their frustration a lot more," Robson said. "The players owe them better performances than that." Deservedly level when Jamie Pollock charged through to cancel out Blake's opener, mistakes cost Middlesbrough goals late in the first half and early in the second, after which, in Robson's words, they "just fell away." Lee's fourth, though skilfully executed, was scarcely resisted.

So how does Robson arrest the slide? With Juninho away for three weeks, a lot will be pinned on another Brazilian when Branco's paperwork comes through. Not to mention Nick Barmby, Craig Hignett and Jan Fjortoft, who were reunited on Saturday but without the fluency on which Middlesbrough's early-season success was built.

Perhaps the answer lies less with Robson, the manager, as with Robson, the player. For all the skills of Juninho and Barmby, Middlesbrough have performed more effectively with Robson in the engine room than without. Since Christmas he has been unfit, bothered first by sciatica and then by a calf strain. But he wants to play on, even at 39. Never have his inspirational qualities been more urgently required.

Goals: Blake (12) 0-1; Pollock (36) 1-1; Coleman (45) 1-2; DeFreitas (62) 1-3; Lee (73) 1-4.

Midlesbrough (5-2-2-1): Walsh; Cox, Pearson (Whyte, 45), Vickers, Whelan (Hendrie, 66), Morris; O'Halloran (Moore, 66), Pollock; Barmby, Hignett; Fjortoft.

Bolton Wanderers (4-4-2): Branagan; Green, Fairclough, Coleman, Phillips; Lee, Thompson, Curcic, Sellars; DeFreitas, Blake. Substitutes not used: McGinlay, Paatelainen, Sneekes.

Referee: P Danson (Leicester).

Bookings: Middlesbrough: Pollock, Whelan, Hignett, Whyte. Bolton: Thompson, Lee, Fairclough, Blake.

Man of the match: Curcic.

Attendance: 29,354.