Football: Ritchie's late strike thwarts Boro revival: Relegation battle

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Middlesbrough. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2

Oldham Athletic. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3

OLDHAM can always score, as Manchester United will testify, but their defence has often resembled wet cardboard. Until the last five minutes of last night's match at Ayresome Park, as last week against United, the Latics' back four were sprung steel. With seven points from three games, Oldham are threatening clubs way above them, while Middlesbrough's spirit seems to be draining away.

As Boro's manager, Lennie Lawrence, put it afterwards: 'We are barely alive. We have given ourselves a mountain to climb.'

This was raw red-blooded stuff with future wage packets at stake. Free-kicks were more evident than shots on goal although neither team, with effectively six points at stake, could have been termed defensive.

Paul Gerrard, in Oldham's goal, has been through the fiery furnace in recent weeks. He does have a good temperament: he punched up rather than out the first corner kick and won further derision with a rather ham-fisted tip-over of the second, but these faux pas did not worry him when he dived to take the ball off Willie Falconer's feet.

Everton were rumoured to be in the audience, possibly checking on Oldham's England squad defender, Richard Jobson, although it is difficult to imagine any sale - with three senior players injured - before Thursday's deadline.

When Oldham did break free of almost continuous pressure they were doubly effective. In the 30th minute Ian Olney's speculative long cross was met first by Paul Bernard at the far post to head home. While Boro were still recovering, the Latics struck again, Neil Adams's corner in the 35th minute being guided in by Jobson to take the margin to 2-0.

Boro sent on Craig Hignett for the restart as the crowd built up a fair head of steam but Craig Fleming, who marked Ryan Giggs so tightly last week, was as an implacable a marker.

Having been booed off at the interval, Boro never lacked effort but were rarely close to Gerrard until the closing minutes, when those who left early missed a rousing finish.

With five minutes left Nicky Mohan anticipated a free-kick to beat the offside trap; Andy Ritchie, who had fluffed two golden chances, made it 3-1 a minute later, and almost on time Hignett at last found space to head Boro's second goal.

Middlesbrough: Ironside; Curtis Fleming, Phillips, Mohan, Peake (Kamara, 68) Whyte, Hendrie, Mustoe (Hignett, h-t), Wilkinson, Falconer, Wright. Substitute not used: Collett (gk).

Oldham Athletic: Gerrard; Halle, Pointon, Henry, Jobson, Craig Fleming, Adams, Ritchie, Olney, Milligan, Bernard. Substitutes not used: Tolson, McDonald, Keeley (gk).

Referee: K Morton (Bury St Edmunds).

Aldershot revival, page 33