Football: Robson's motley crew are sailing

Middlesbrough 1 West Ham United 0
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The Independent Online
PROMOTED LAST season, Middlesbrough are creeping unnoticed up the Premiership table with an unprepossessing collection of passed-sell- by-dates and perennial non-achievers.

Such success is either an indictment of this season's standards or an acknowledgement of Bryan Robson's skill in blending together a motley crew which mesmerised West Ham in the first half.

Only last season Hamilton Ricard was being jeered at the Riverside for grotesque incompetence in front of goal. During the World Cup, the Colombian was lampooned for similar crimes but now he stands proud as the League's second highest scorer. Untidy but strong, he has a clever knack of getting himself out of embarrassing situations with audacious skill: witness a wonderful overhead cross which Steve Vickers planted on to a post.

Beside him is Brian Deane. Put out to grass in the First Division, he sought pastures new in Benfica but has now been brought back to display his awkward wastefulness on English fields. He ploughed on as chances went begging but won the game with a bullet header.

Feeding them is the strange triumvirate of Dean Gordon, Andy Townsend and Paul Gascoigne. If there is a better left wing-back in the country than Gordon, an pounds 850,000 snip from Palace, the North-east has not seen him. His crossing is lethal - like the 20th-minute beauty he flighted for Deane to head straight at Shaka Hislop.

Townsend, at 35, is tireless, his brain as sharp as ever as he showed with a quick first- minute free-kick that Deane dismissed again, knowing more chances would come soon.

And Gascoigne is Gascoigne, wonderful and wicked all at once. With another suspension impending, he crashed into tackles yet produced breath-taking passes and sublime drag backs.

"He's enjoying his lifestyle away from football", said Robson. "He's settled in his new house and he's got everything in perspective at the moment". The watching John Gorman can only have taken a positive perspective back to his boss, Glenn Hoddle.

Despite the scoreline, West Ham received a pasting at these players' hands in the first half, forcing Harry Redknapp to rethink. "We played 4-4-2 at Newcastle and won 3-0 and I thought it would make us more solid away from home," he explained. "We have two midfielders and two wide men but we needed more players in the centre, and had to push the wide men out to stop Gordon bombing on."

John Moncur's arrival changed West Ham to be 3-5-2. Trevor Sinclair was deployed further upfield to keep Gordon occupied and Frank Lampard was given a more attacking role to keep Gascoigne busy in a compelling encounter between the once-was and the may-be.

It was all Redknapp could do. "I had three kids on the bench straight from the youth team and next week I've got Moncur and Ruddock suspended so I'll have to put a couple of 14-year-olds in," he joked. "I am looking to spend pounds 15-pounds 20m in the next week but the board doesn't know yet. Maybe I'll get 15 bob."

But his cheap and cheerful changes so nearly worked when John Hartson crashed a corner against the bar.

Goal: Deane (40) 1-0.

Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Schwarzer; Vickers, Pallister, Cooper; Stockdale (Stamp, 85), Mustoe, Gascoigne, Townsend, Gordon; Ricard (Beck, 74), Deane. Substitutes not used: Maddison, Summerbell, Roberts (gk).

West Ham United (4-4-2): Hislop; Potts, Ferdinand, Pearce, Lazardis (Omoyinmi, 75); Sinclair, Lomas, Lampard, Keller (Moncur, 45); Wright, Hartson. Substitutes not used: Coyne, Etherington, Forrest (gk).

Referee: K Burge (Tonypandy).

Bookings: Middlesbrough: Vickers. West Ham: Potts, Pearce, Lampard.

Man of the match: Gascoigne.

Attendance: 34,623.