FOOTBALL: Pressure makes Ball grab at straws

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Manchester City 0 Middlesbrough 1

Thoughts were turning to the last time Manchester City got off to such a miserable start as one point in seven matches and were focusing on the relegation season of 1962-63. Then a demonstration outside Maine Road culminated in bricks going through windows.

By comparison the unrest rippling through Moss Side on Saturday night was mild. Just an outbreak of "What a load of rubbish" that was quickly shouted down and then a refrain of "Are you happy Alan Ball?" at the end.

And, as it happened, the City manager was as happy as he could be in the circumstances. "I thought the lads did all right," he said. "We didn't deserve to lose today and as a manager you have to take the crumbs from that. Everyone else will just see the 1-0 scoreline and assume we played badly.''

To a point he was right. City did the things expected of a team that is struggling. They battled and they laboured but their problem is that the players are also seeing the run of sad scorelines and if anything they are trying too hard.

Ball attempted to disrupt Middlesbrough's defensive core by playing three strikers but numbers did not add up to increased threat and until Nicky Summerbee came on and struck the bar eight minutes from time, the home side had not given the slightest hint of scoring.

By then the match had been won by a Boro team who are superbly organised but, Nick Barmby and Jan Age Fjortoft apart, very regimented too. When the two strikers link, however, the unexpected is possible and after 16 minutes they gelled beautifully. Barmby began the move on the left, Fjortoft flicked it to Craig Hignett and when his shot reached the six-yard box Barmby slid the ball in.

It was wonderfully executed, only the evidence suggested that Barmby had strayed offside during it. "Everyone in the world," Ball grumbled, "every man and his dog thought it was offside but it doesn't count for much now. It's 1-0 there's nothing we can do to change it." He did not say it but the thought "nothing goes your way when you're down" was obviously going through his mind.

Which would not be entirely true because Richard Edghill and Uwe Rosler were lucky to complete the match. The former was sent off for two bookable offences last week and ran the gauntlet of a double when he carved into Fjortoft after being cautioned for less in the first half. Mr Willard was lenient then and was again when Rosler took his shirt off and handed it to a linesman in a display of dissent.

A manager under pressure forgets these things and anyway Ball was searching for straws. "If you are fair-minded," he said, "you'll feel sorry for us because we are having a go and we played some football. Middlesbrough are a hard side to beat.''

Goal: Barmby (16 min) 0-1.

Manchester City (4-3-3): Immel; Edghill, Symons, Curle, Phelan; Lomas, Brightwell, Brown (Beagrie, 62); Rosler, Kinkladze (Summerbee, 71), Creaney. Substitute not used: Margetson (gk).

Middlesbrough (5-3-2): Walsh; Cox, Pearson, Vickers, Whyte, Morris; Hignett, Pollock, Mustoe; Fjortoft, Barmby. Substitutes not used: Whelan, Moreno, Moore.

Referee: G Willard (Worthing).