Football: Robson's glow palls

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The Independent Online

UP THE road on Tyneside, Kenny Dalglish survived just two matches of the Premiership season, both undefeated. On Teesside, a mere three games into the 1998-99 campaign, Bryan Robson is facing a make-or-break fixture.

The Middlesbrough manager is due to tackle the Pauls, Merson and Gascoigne, at the club's training complex tomorrow. He desperately needs a result - a positive one, that is. Otherwise, Middlesbrough's season among the big boys will be in serious danger of going exactly the same way as the last one.

Deja vu is already settling on Teesside in the wake of Friday's reports that one of Robson's expensively acquired hands is seeking to jump ship down at the Riverside. Like Fabrizio Ravanelli, Emerson, and Branco before him (and ultimately, of course, Juninho, too), Merson, it would seem, wants to bail out from Boro.

Robson was quick to dismiss the tabloid claims as "rubbish", adding: "If you buy comics you get a comic book story."

However, he read from a similar script when Ravanelli, Emerson and Branco were rocking the boat. And the stories of their time at Middlesbrough did not have happy endings.

Ravanelli made for Marseilles muttering, among other things: "Bryan Robson had this big reputation as a tough player but as a manager he is too soft." Now, clearly, it is time for the former Captain Marvel to show his managerial mettle.

Merson, significantly perhaps, has not taken the opportunity of the last 48 hours to deny either that he wants to leave or that his relationship with Gascoigne has deteriorated because of his team-mate's alleged drink problem. The bottom line for Robson is that he can ill afford to lose Merson, both for the sake of his team and for the sake of his own managerial credibility. Losing his best player would be a severe blow to Middlesbrough's Premiership survival prospects and losing another big-name buy would be equally damaging to his professional reputation.

In his four years and four months at Middlesbrough, Robson has lavished pounds 51m on new players. Kevin Keegan spent pounds 60m at Newcastle and built a team that at least threatened to win the title. Robson has spent just pounds 9m less and has assembled nothing more than a jigsaw of a side. In the big picture of the Premiership, it looks like it might fall to pieces once again.