Football: Sizzling Smith leaves Boro breathless

Leeds United 2 Smith 21, Bowyer 27 Middlesbrough 0 Half-time: 2-0 Attendance: 37,473
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The Independent Online
IT ALL ended in tears for Middlesbrough when they last made the short trip to Elland Road. Yesterday, 20 months on from the match that consigned them to relegation, the Teessiders were torn apart there by a razor-sharp Leeds United. Paul Gascoigne was not the only member of the Boro party in need of anti- depressants as David O'Leary's upwardly mobile team produced a first- half performance reminiscent of the Leeds greats of yore.

Gascoigne may be "proud to see young English talent coming through", as he declared last weekend, but his, and Middlesbrough's, pride was wounded by the talent oozing from O'Leary's youthful side. Gascoigne himself was eclipsed in midfield by Lee Bowyer, nine years his junior at 22 - to such an extent he was withdrawn with half an hour remaining. And Boro, though they made a second-half fist of what had been a humiliating mis-match, were floored by the 19-year-old Alan Smith. The local lad scored the first goal himself and made the second for Bowyer.

"The kids made me proud," O'Leary said. "We played wonderful football." Bryan Robson was not so effusive. "Leeds passed the ball about nicely," the Middlesbrough manager said, "but I could have done that the way our lads stood back. We were all over the place in the first half."

Such has been Robson's overhaul of playing personnel down at the Riverside, only three survivors of Middlesbrough's relegated team of '97 were in their line-up yesterday - Curtis Fleming, Gianluca Festa and Robbie Mustoe - though they were, ironically, led by the player whose goal ultimately sealed their fate in that 1-1 draw at Elland Road in May 1997.

In the absence of the suspended Andy Townsend, Brian Deane returned to his old club as Middlesbrough's captain for the day. And it never looked likely to be a happy return as he spent the opening 10 minutes stranded in the opposition half with Hamilton Ricard.

Prompted by Bowyer and David Hopkin, Leeds threatened to scatter Boro to the four corners of Elland Road with their whirlwind attacking play. It was a wonder that Middlesbrough held out for as long as they did.

At times it seemed that Mark Schwarzer was their only line of defence and the Australian needed to be at his agile best to keep out two powerful drives by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. He was also fortunate that Smith's close-range finish did not match the sublime ball-dragging act that left Steve Vickers stuck in the mud on the six-yard line.

Middlesbrough did get off the back foot long enough for Deane to test Nigel Martyn with a header but their resistance finally gave way after 21 minutes.

They were caught leaden-footed and leaden-headed as Hasselbaink launched a charge from the left. Steve Vickers and Gary Pallister were too slow to clear the Dutchman's shot and Smith needed no second invitation to bury the loose ball. It was the teenager's third goal of the week but he is more than a penalty-box predator. It was his angled through ball, sixminutes later, that split the Boro defence and allowed Bowyer to beat Schwarzer with a first-time shot.

Middlesbrough were in tatters and they were fortunate to make it to half- time without suffering further damage, Hasselbaink striking the angle of bar and post with one piledriver of a shot. After the break Boro, not so much up against the ropes as splattered on the floor, picked themselves up as Leeds struggled to regain the momentum.

They fought back, too, Deane clipping the top of Martyn's crossbar from 25 yards and Hopkin deflecting a Curtis Fleming shot just wide. Hasselbaink squandered three clear chances in the final 20 minutes but Leeds looked hung over from their intoxicating first-half efforts.