Football: purs second best again

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The Independent Online
Tottenham Hotspur 0 Middlesbrough 3

THE DECLINE of Paul Gascoigne may be sad and seemingly irreversible, but compared to that afflicting his old team he is in pretty good shape.

Second-best throughout yesterday's match the only uncertainty they caused was to their own supporters. They were unsure whether to leave early, or wait for the final whistle to boo the team off.

Gascoigne, making his first competitive appearance at White Hart Lane since May 1991, never needed to raise a gallop against a team even more pedestrian than he. Though he did little more than provide a passable impression of David Batty - which is praise of sorts - there must have been many in the home support who wished his footballing intelligence was still available to them. When he left, six minutes from time, they generously forgot their own woes to give him a standing ovation.

Though Gascoigne played a part, Boro's win was built on a commanding performance in defence, notably by Gary Pallister, and quick, incisive attacking.

That was evident in two goals in seven minutes from Hamilton Ricard midway through the first half which set up a win confirmed with a late strike from Vladimir Kinder. That earned Boro their first win at White Hart Lane since 1979 and their second away win in five days. It lifted them a dozen places to sixth, Spurs drop to 12th.

While Boro grew in confidence as the game progressed Tottenham became increasingly fraught, their passing hurried and wayward as their fans communicated their dissatisfaction to the pitch. The defeat, the performance and the empty spaces in the ground all increase the pressure on Alan Sugar to find a new manager, his sixth in seven seasons, following the departure of Christian Gross.

They had begun with the five-man midfield that brought them a midweek victory over Blackburn and rekindled memories of David Pleat's first spell at the club. Then, however, he had Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle providing the chances and Clive Allen converting them. Now, with Darren Anderton injured, the resources are less impressive. After an early break, which Stephen Clemence should have made more of, Spurs looked short of penetration. With David Ginola well marshalled by Gianluca Festa they resorted to high balls which Boro's heavyweight central defence dealt with easily.

Middlesbrough, having concentrated on a solid start, ventured forward after 13 minutes and almost scored. Andy Townsend brought a sharp reaction save from Espen Baardsen after Mikkel Beck's dummy and Stephen Carr bravely blocked Dean Gordon's follow-up.

Beck twice went close on the break then Ricard took a long ground pass from Pallister, lost Colin Calderwood through a one-two with Beck, and rolled the ball past Baardsen. The ball-watching Calderwood failed to learn and, seven minutes later he was again left standing as Ricard received a throw-in from Gordon, again played a one-two with Beck, and thumped the ball past Baardsen. The thoughts of the dropped Ramon Vega, the butt of the Spurs crowd and perceived defensive weakness, must have been interesting as he sat watching from the substitutes' bench.

A tame free-kick from Ginola and a header over from Les Ferdinand were all Tottenham could muster in response before the break. Pleat then changed the team, bringing on Chris Armstrong, but it had little effect. Beck, finally looking the player his reputation suggested he was when he came to England two years ago, brought two further saves from Baardsen before, after 69 minutes, Mark Schwarzer was finally stretched, saving from Nicola Berti.

A goal then and Middlesbrough might have wobbled but instead they began to play ever more expansively with Gascoigne making the occasional memory- jerking run forward. Eventually he departed but it brought no respite for Spurs as his replacement, Kinder, drove a 20-yard shot through Baardsen's hands within minutes of coming on.

Bryan Robson, bristling at the recent criticism of his club following Paul Merson's departure, said the win, and performance, underlined his players' professionalism. He added that Gascoigne was still building his fitness which was why he had again brought him off early, but said: "I was delighted with his performance, he had a lot of possession and worked hard."

"We lacked purpose, imagination, conviction, leadership and speed of movement," said Pleat.

Goals: Ricard (24) 0-1; Ricard (31) 0-2, Kinder (87) 0-3.

Tottenham Hotspur (4-5-1): Baardsen; Carr, Calderwood, Campbell, Tramezzani; Fox (Sinton, 55), Nielsen (Saib, 50), Berti, Clemence (Armstrong, h-t), Ginola; Ferdinand. Substitutes not used: Vega, Segers (gk).

Middlesbrough (5-3-2): Schwarzer; Festa, Pallister, Vickers, Cooper, Gordon; Townsend, Gascoigne (Kinder, 84), Mustoe; Ricard (Branca, 65), Beck (Campbell, 89). Substitutes not used: Stockdale, Beresford (gk).

Referee: S Dunn (Bristol).

Bookings: Tottenham: Berti, Ginola.

Attendance: 30,437.

Man of the match: Pallister.