Football: The riddle of Robson's joker

A 70 per cent Gascoigne could still cause 100 per cent damage to Chelsea in today's Coca-Cola Cup final; Simon Turnbull sees the new arrival add an intriguing twist to the Riverside tale
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The Independent Online
IT LOOKED like it had ended in tears at Wembley last May. Instead, 10 months later, it is heading for tiers. Steve Gibson's grand design is back on schedule.

That much was made painfully clear to his chief architect on Thursday morning. A truck crashed into Bryan Robson's new Mercedes as he turned into the car park at the Riverside Stadium. He was not amused, but it was fair to say that the Middlesbrough manager had become a victim of his own - or his club's - success. The vehicle was bearing bricks and mortar for the development work that has become urgently required at Boro's three-year-old ground. The corners are being filled in to cope with public demand to see Robson's side. It will raise the capacity by 4,500 to 35,000 for the start of next season but Gibson has applied for planning permission to make the Riverside a 42,000-seat arena. Hence the prospect of tiers: above the south and north stands.

You have to take your hat off to Gibson and to Robson as they return to Wembley today. The Middlesbrough chairman and his manager seemed victims of their own folly when they left the shadow of the twin towers in May. As the latest edition of Riverside Roar, the club magazine, recalls: "The cynics were joyfully writing off Boro as big- spending could-have-beens who failed to buy success." Beaten 2-0 by Chelsea in the FA Cup final, relegated from the Premiership courtesy of the three points docked for their no-show at Blackburn, and their three principal foreign hands all wanting to jump ship, Middlesbrough could have sunk with precious little trace. The salvage operation has been mightily impressive.

Boro are back at Wembley in buoyant state. This time, in the Coca-Cola Cup final, Chelsea can expect a match. The FA Cup was in effect theirs before the first of the 90 minutes had elapsed in last year's final. Once Roberto Di Matteo's shot hit the back of Ben Roberts' net, after 43 seconds, Middlesbrough were a broken side. The toll of their fruitless fight against relegation told with a vengeance. So did the fighting in the dressing room; Neil Cox had come to blows on the morning of the match with Fabrizio Ravanelli. The Italian limped meekly off the hallowed turf midway through the first-half. It was open to question whether he was physically hamstrung but there was no doubting Boro's state of disrepair.

This afternoon Robson returns with a team in rude health, recovered from the ills of last season and, it seems, from the recent hiccups of heavy defeats at the City Ground (4-0) and Loftus Road (5-0). He returns with a stronger hand too. Robson's FA Cup final team did not feature Mark Schwarzer, Andy Towns end, Paul Merson, Marco Branca or Hamilton Ricard. He also has a joker in his pack, though Paul Gascoigne could be Middlesbrough's ace today. Robson may even play him from the start. It would be a gamble of one sort to pick Robbie Mustoe, who has missed three games with sciatica. And laying Gascoigne straight on the table would certainly be a psychological trump by Robson. If nothing else, it would have Gianluca Vialli and Graham Rix hastily plotting plan B when the Middlesbrough team-sheet landed in the Chelsea dressing room.

Gascoigne, by his own admission, is less than fully fit. "Hopefully I will be after 10 days' training and a couple of games," he said after putting pen to the paper of his three and a half-year contract on Thursday. "At the moment I'm about 70 per cent fit." A 70 per cent Gascoigne, however, could still cause 100 per cent damage to the opposition. And Robson does not deny that he has been impressed by what he has seen from his pounds 3.45m recruit on the training ground in the last four days. Most of all, he has been struck by the earnest mood of the long-time clowning prince of British soccer.

"Paul has got his serious head on," Robson said. "I know for a fact he's more mature. He doesn't lark about as much as he used to and his binges aren't as regular. When you get the serious Paul Gascoigne you'll never get a more dedicated trainer, and when he's fit you won't find a better midfield player. Jamie Redknapp can hit a great pass but he can't split a defence like Paul."

It is probably Robson's, and Middlesbrough's, good fortune that Rangers deemed such defence-splitting capability surplus to their requirements. Gascoigne's pride has been wounded by his ultimately enforced departure from Ibrox.

At 30, he has found himself back in his native North-east England with a point to prove. Climbing the 39 steps to the Royal Box to collect a winner's medal this afternoon would not be a bad start. It would also ease the painful memory of Gascoigne's last act in English club football: his kamikaze challenge on Gary Charles in the 1991 FA Cup final.

Middlesbrough stand to win their spurs too. After their two cup final failures last year, this afternoon is another chance for Boro to put straight the historical record which defines them as second-class citizens of the English football fraternity. The last time they won a cup competition, by the banks of the Thames in November 1975, their goalkeeper was too embarrassed to join the lap of honour. "It was the Anglo-Scottish Cup," Jim Platt recalled, "and we had drawn, 0-0. I went straight to the dressing room." That tin-pot triumph apart, Middlesbrough's last claim to national honours dates back a neat 100 years: to a 2-1 victory against the might of Uxbridge in the Amateur Cup final of 1898.

So a place in the annals will be beckoning Robson's Boro boys as they walk up the Wembley tunnel today. "The challenge is there for us," Paul Merson acknowledged at the end of last week. "We can become the first Middlesbrough team to win a major trophy and that's exciting for all of us. We will be remembered forever on Teesside if we beat Chelsea. And we feel that we can."

Instead of tears for Teesside, there could be cheers and history in the making down Wembley way this time.