Football: Teesside revived by raider Ricard

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The Independent Online
Middlesbrough 3 Wimbledon 1

MEANINGLESS IT might have been - unless, of course, you count qualification for the Intertoto Cup - but these often mediocre sides, whose mid-table respectability means they are immune to any end-of-season excitement, conjured up a first half of great enterprise and invention.

Sadly, the second half had nothing on the first. In fact, it had nothing bar a consolation goal for the visitors, who are now behind Middlesbrough in the pecking order for that valuable Intertoto place.

Middlesbrough, still fresh after their soporific scoreless draw against Blackburn on Saturday, started in the 32nd second. The ball ballooned off Hamilton Ricard's head and as it fell, apparently harmlessly, just outside the area, the Colombian hit it spectacularly on the half-turn into the top right-hand corner.

Neil Sullivan looked stunned but then came the onslaught, spearheaded by Robbie Mustoe. Twice in five minutes the midfielder burst clean through to face Sullivan. He placed his first shot wide and his second was deflected by Dean Blackwell for a corner. But it was no saving tackle, for when Andy Townsend slung over the third of a series of kicks, Keith O'Neill nodded it on and Gianluca Festa stooped at the far post to score.

With Paul Gascoigne running with menace, Ricard showing a full South American repertoire of skills and O'Neill, making his first start after his pounds 700,000 move from Norwich, displaying full-blooded enthusiasm, Wimbledon's defenders were at full stretch.

Yet they should have coped with the third. Boro's Colin Cooper made his intention abundantly clear in the 29th minute, but still Blackwell allowed the long ball to clear him. With Sullivan caught in two minds and no-man's land, Ricard delicately lobbed the ball over the keeper for his 17th goal of the season.

The scoreline would have done nothing for Joe Kinnear's condition, but the Dons were in better health than it suggested. Festa had to tidy up a John Hartson flick in the sixth minute as Marcus Gayle threatened. Ten minutes later Gareth Ainsworth pulled a presentable chance wide but he immediately atoned with a 30-yard volley which flirted with the post. Best of all, Hartson nudged the ball off his chest into the path of Robbie Earle's run but the flick did not quite clear Mark Schwarzer.

The rotation of squad players as substitutes in the second half and the complete absence of yellow cards gave the game the feel of a pre-season friendly. Schwarzer was the busier of the keepers, if only because in the 75th minute he had to pick the ball out of his own net when Carl Cort viciously volleyed home Gayle's touch from close range. But by that time the goal was meaningless.

Middlesbrough (5-3-2): Schwarzer; Stockdale (Vickers, 85), Cooper, Pallister, Festa, Gordon; Townsend (Summerbell, 73), Mustoe, Gascoigne; Ricard, O'Neill (Maddison, 54). Substitutes not used: Beresford (gk), Kinder.

Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Ardley (M Hughes, 82), Blackwell, Perry, Thatcher; Ainsworth (Roberts, 46), Earle, Euell, C Hughes; Hartson (Cort, 68), Gayle. Substitutes not used: Heald (gk), Castledine.

Referee: P Durkin (Portland, Dorset).