Football: Three points give Robson relief from off-field distractions

Sunderland 1 Middlesbrough 2
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The Independent Online
And so the Middlesbrough soap opera goes on. The morning edition, printed in black and white, featured the piqued prima donna biting the hand that fed a generous pounds 42,000 a week until four days ago, Fabrizio Ravanelli deriding Bryan Robson and Steve Gibson as "strictly non-League."

It also highlighted the new farce down at the Riverside, Paul Merson apparently agreeing to use Ravanelli's old pad as a part-time rest cure for his daily travel sickness. When it came to the lunchtime episode of neighbours, however, Middlesbrough delivered the punch-line in the Sunderland Stadium of Light.

For 64 minutes, after Lionel Perez tipped over Vladimir Kinder's attempted third minute surprise, Boro played like old hams. Merson might as well have been in the buffet on a 125 from King's Cross and Emerson might well have been in the other Stadium of Light, the Estadio da Luz, which he visited in his Porto days, for all the illumination he was able to provide.

But then the cardboard cut-outs became class acts. Merson collected the ball wide on the left and showed his England pedigree, darting past Chris Makin and cutting the ball back to the arc of the "D." Emerson left fly with the outside of his right foot and the ball flew into the far corner.

The temper of the Sunderland fans behind the south stand goals worsened, several of them wading through the thin blue line to halt the celebrations of their North-east neighbours. By the 78th minute, though, the prevailing mood had shifted from anger to one of meek submission.

The seats emptied and the silence settled after Boro made sure of the spoils. Emerson and Merson did the damage again. The Brazilian freed the Londoner on the right and Merson fed the ball in to Robbie Mustoe, who forced it over the line at the second attempt after Perez parried his initial effort.

Sunderland did manage to get on the scoresheet when Kevin Ball bundled in from close range with 92 minutes on the clock. Eighty-two minutes earlier, video replays showed that Martin Smith had in fact been fractionally onside when he side-footed past Mark Schwarzer. That disallowed effort apart, though, Sunderland were a mirror image of their doomed Premiership form: full of endeavour but empty of finesse.

Not that Peter Reid saw it that way. "I thought we played some good stuff," the Sunderland manager said, having apparently spent the 96 minutes Paul Rejer chose to play watching an entirely different game.

Robson, invited to respond to the tabloid ravings of Ravanelli, retorted: "It doesn't interest me." That, however, was more than Merson was prepared to tell us. "He's gone off to catch a train," a steward reported.

Goals: Emerson (67) 0-1; Mustoe (78) 0-2.; Ball (90) 1-2.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Perez; Makin, Ord, Melville, Scott; Williams, Ball, Clark, Gray; Rae, Smith (Johnston, 72). Substitutes not used: Byrne, Bridges.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Fleming, Festa, Pearson, Kinder; Ormerod (Moore, 64), Emerson, Mustoe, Townsend; Merson, Beck. Substitutes not used: Liddle, Roberts (gk).

Referee: P Rejer (Tipton).

Bookings: Sunderland: Makin. Middlesbrough: Emerson, Mustoe, Townsend.

Man of the match: Merson.

Attendance: 35,384.