Riggott confident in Boro's sprint finish

'We know it's not been good, but we retained the belief'
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The Independent Football

It was in the Gottlieb-Daimler Stadion that Linford Christie sped to his World Championship 100 metres title back in 1993, leaving Carl Lewis and others trailing in his wake. It took him 9.87 seconds.

Steve McClaren and his Middlesbrough team had already come a long way pretty quickly before they arrived in the rain-drenched Stuttgart arena on Thursday evening, and in 90 minutes they managed to maintain the momentum of their rousing victory against Chelsea at the Riverside Stadium the previous Saturday. Still, to borrow one managerial cliché, their particular race happens to be a marathon and not a sprint.

Such has been their huff-and- puff form since the gun fired at the start of the 2005-06 season that McClaren's Boro could yet drop off the pace away to proud Preston in the FA Cup this afternoon and turn their impressive spurt in Stuttgart into a false start with a second-leg slump on Teesside next Thursday. For the time being, though, at least they have recovered from hitting football's equivalent of "the wall", which appeared to be the case only the week before last.

Instead of being hit with a season-ticket book, as he was in the midst of the 4-0 defeat against Aston Villa a fortnight ago, McClaren was being showered with praise after his team followed their 3-0 destruction of Chelsea with a 2-1 win against Stuttgart in the first leg of their round-of-32 Uefa Cup tie. It was certainly another highly impres-sive display - all poise and pur-pose, with a cutting edge in attack and steely resolve at the back.

Not so long ago the Middlesbrough defence was looking like Newcastle's in disguise. Against Chelsea and against Stuttgart it looked suspiciously like, well, Chelsea's - on a better day for the champions than eight days ago, that is. Gareth Southgate has been back to his assured best, and Chris Riggott, alongside him at the heart of the Boro back-line, has been outstanding too.

"The last few months have been very difficult," Riggott reflected. "We know it's not been good football to watch, but we retained the belief that it was a matter of time before it changed. We had to stay together and remain positive.

"It doesn't get any harder than it was getting. There were high expectations and we expected a reaction like that when our results were poor. I was ill in bed when the fan threw his season ticket at the manager. I was watching it on television and I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It was a complete shock.

"The results have not been good enough and it's the manager who cops the flak. Steve has got a good record at the club. He has got us into Europe and every fan has enjoyed the experience. We showed against Stuttgart what we can do. But our manager will be the first to admit this has not been the best season, and he accepts responsibility for that.

"A lot has been said about Steve McClaren and England and I don't want to get involved in that. He deserves more recognition. I back him 100 per cent and so do the rest of the lads. We have a lot of faith in him. It was his hour of need and we repaid him with the Chelsea win.

"It has not been easy for him and any of us but we've got a lot of the lads back from injury now and we're playing well. We're not getting carried away, but the season is very much alive and we want to kick on now."

Premiership safety remains far from assured, but a place in the last 16 of the Uefa Cup is beckoning, and a win against Preston this afternoon would put them in the last eight of the FA Cup. Then again, though, no one has beaten Preston since 27 September. Billy Davies's latter- day Invincibles are on an unbeaten run of 25 matches. And, history shows, Preston have never lost a fifth-round FA Cup tie in the confines of Deepdale.

"It's a tough game," Riggott acknowledged. "Preston will be full of confidence after the long unbeaten run they've had. They're flying high. But we've done our homework on them.

"Against Nuneaton we needed a replay, and it was the same against Coventry.

"It's not been easy for us and it'll be far from easy at Preston, but we're confident we can get through. The FA Cup is a massive competition for us."

It's a massive competition for Preston too. Unlike Middlesbrough, they have actually won it - courtesy of their Invincibles in 1888-89, and of a team of North Enders featuring Bill Shankly in 1938. It may or may not be an omen, but the last time they made it to the quarter- finals was in 1966, which turned out to be a pretty good year for English football.