Football: Striking Gazza's lasting impact

Middlesbrough 4 Beck 27, 45, Ricard 49, Gascoigne 90 Sheffield Wednesday 0 Attendance: 34,163
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The Independent Online
WITHOUT PAOLO Di Canio, Wednesday proved to be pushovers for a Middlesbrough side who emphatically recorded their first home win of the season without needing to raise their game above the mundane until the very last minute.

On the final whistle, Andy Hinchcliffe compounded Wednesday's woes by getting himself sent off for barging the hat-trick chasing Mikkel Beck out of the way of Paul Gascoigne's through ball. From 25 yards Gazza curled in the last kick of the match with a style that was once his alone but is now more associated with David Beckham.

"It was a pathetic sending-off with one minute to go," Wednesday's manager Danny Wilson said. "I didn't even think it was a foul. And now we have someone we can ill-afford to lose banned for three games."

It was hard not to feel a little sorry for Wednesday as, with Di Canio indefinitely suspended for tumbling referee Paul Alcock last weekend, they had too few fancy dans to field a front line. Strikers Andy Booth, Benito Carbone and Guy Whittingham were all injured and so it fell to Ritchie Humphreys to start his first game in 14 months and spearhead the attack on his own - a task he took too literally as he was booked for a sprawling foul after just 47 seconds.

"With the team we had out we tried a bit of damage limitation but it didn't work," Wilson admitted.

At the start of the season, Middlesbrough too had a striker shortage with Marco Branca and Alun Armstrong long-term injured and their manager, Bryan Robson, so uncertain about Hamilton Ricard and Beck that he left them on the bench, preferring to allow Paul Merson to plough a lone furrow. With Merson's defection to Aston Villa both Beck and Ricard have taken their chances, Beck's pair yesterday celebrating his recall into the Danish squad and Ricard's delicate rounding of the keeper taking his tally to eight, one ahead of Alan Shearer as the Premiership's leading scorer.

Early on, Beck and Ricard both sent a string of fine left-wing crosses from Dean Gordon high and wide, but these were rare moments of illumination in a grey opening that was black for Petter Rudi who fell awkwardly after 13 minutes and was carried off.

With 10 men crowding midfield and Wednesday's offside trap efficient, space was congested and Boro did not have the wit to open things up. Gascoigne was sloppy and increasingly irritated; Andy Townsend was surprisingly slow and cautioned for a late tackle.

In the 27th minute, though, Beck played the ball behind Ricard. The Colombian stuck out a long leg to reach it, turned with the speed of an ocean going liner and slipped the ball quite deftly into the slip stream of Gordon racing down the left. Gordon's low cross was poked home by the Dane for his second goal of the season. Beck's third came on the stroke of half- time from almost the same place as he proved deadly from two yards out. After a corner, Robbie Mustoe slung the ball wide to Gianluca Festa, who volleyed it precisely with the side of his foot into the six-yard box. As Emerson Thome and Kevin Pressman debated about the dropping danger, Beck again poked home.

In Middlesbrough's previous home game they also led 2-0 at the interval but conceded twice within four minutes of the restart to allow Everton to snatch a draw. Given that Wednesday's first-half opportunities had largely been long range miscues, a repeat appeared unlikely, although it was hard to believe how easy Wednesday made it for them. In the 49th minute, Thome's back pass gave Pressman no chance. Ricard latched on to it, walked around the prostrate keeper and dispatched it from a tricky angle.

Such a scoreline soothed even Gascoigne's irritations and he produced one outrageous flick on the volley that so utterly baffled Earl Barrett that the Wednesday substitute looked as if the sky had fallen in on him. Yet it was Gascoigne's clowning - making a mockery of a stern challenge - that allowed Niclas Alexandersson space to cross for Scott Oakes to head Wednesday's best chance straight at Mark Schwarzer.

But the mercurial maverick had his moment of beauty, joyously adding the final blow to a very wobbly Wednesday.