Football: Weary United stuck in the swamp

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The Independent Online
Middlesbrough. . . . . .1

Manchester United. . . .1

UNITED dropped another two points at a waterlogged Ayresome Park in a wearyingly familiar scenario. Lennie Lawrence, the Middlesbrough manager, was honest as usual, admitting: 'They cut us to pieces. They are unbelieveable on the break. It was our good fortune they couldn't finish.' He then added, remembering his team: 'It was our overall effort in the conditions that deserved the draw. We earned it.'

Middlesbrough had the better of the last half-hour and the longer the match went on, as Lawrence claimed, the more likely they were to finish winners. United's second experience of swamp football in a week drained their legs.

Yet Ayresome was much worse than Torpedo's park. The water lay in lagoons rather than puddles; there were occasions when the players seemed about to go under at the end of a sliding tackle. Danny Wallace is lucky he has a pulled hamstring; had he played he might have drowned.

Alex Ferguson was rightly tart about such conditions: 'It was playable. It wasn't dangerous but in a modern context it was a poor surface. I was very disappointed. The pitch should have been forked.'

How much the surface affected Mark Hughes's play is another pertinent question. Either side of the interval he should have scored. He was displaced, looking angry, by Bryan Robson, the manager offering a telling explanation: 'Robbo was most likely to get us a goal.'

In terms of penetration Andrei Kanchelskis, on for the last four minutes, had more effect, suggesting he should have been playing from the start. 'The pitch was worst on the flanks,' Ferguson offered. 'That's why we didn't play two wide men.'

Bernie Slaven's equaliser was beautifully taken under extreme pressure; he also hit a post and was the most composed and accurate striker on the field. Ince, Ferguson and Irwin also had a good afternoon, but Brian McClair is off the boil while Ryan Giggs left Middlesbrough for dead half a dozen times but only twice produced a worthwhile final pass.

Middlesbrough have now gone almost a month without a win. Alan Kernaghan twisted his neck in the warm-up and his absence left their central defence looking vulnerable. If the Ayresome men do get involved in long Coca-Cola Cup or FA Cup runs - and they are that kind of team - they may struggle to survive.

Goals: Bruce pen (43) 0-1; Slaven (59) 1-1.

Middlesbrough: Ironside; Morris, Phillips, Gittens, Whyte, Peake, Slaven, Mustoe, Wilkinson, Pollock (Hendrie, 54), Wright. Substitutes not used: Proctor, Pears (gk).

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Irwin, Phelan (Kanchelskis, 86), Bruce, Ferguson, Pallister, Blackmore, Ince, McClair, Hughes (Robson, 72), Giggs. Substitute not used: Walsh (gk).

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).