Ascension put on hold after Allardyce falls back to earth

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The Independent Football

Bolton's failure to win the Carling Cup may just slow down the deification of their manager, Sam Allardyce.

This, however, is by no means guaranteed given recent levels of self-promotion. Indeed, before the combined class of Middlesbrough's Juninho and Gaizka Mendieta tore the innards out of his team within the first seven minutes, Big Sam and his growing legion of admirers couldn't quite decide the most appropriate reward for winning Bolton's first trophy since the 1958 FA Cup triumph over a Manchester United shattered by the Munich air tragedy.

It rested, apparently, between succeeding Sven Goran Eriksson as England's coach or nudging Marcello Lippi out of the Juventus dug-out.

Perspective, however, came in shafts of light from the superior talent of Middlesbrough's men from Brazil and the Basque country.

Naturally, for a team so honed in the arts of survival - and this is surely Allardyce's most legitimate mark of honour in the game thus far - Bolton refused to crumble in the face of such dramatic early evidence of Middlesbrough's superiority and at the finish there were many willing to listen to the hard-luck story that had supplanted those anticipated tunes of glory.

This centred on Allardyce's bitter complaint that Middlesbrough's second goal - a penalty converted by Bolo Zenden - should have been disallowed and replaced by a free-kick for Bolton, after the Dutchman's shot, delivered with his left foot, had struck his right boot on its way past the goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen.

Technicalities apart, however, there could not be much doubting the course of natural justice that delivered Middlesbrough their first trophy win of their existence - and some concrete tribute to the man who has long been considered by many the perfect chairman, the unobtrusive Steve Gibson.

Gibson firstly protected his friend Bryan Robson when his regime slid into severe crisis after years of promise and plenty of action at the top end of the transfer market, crucially hiring the trouble-shooting assistance of Terry Venables to preserve the club's Premiership life, and his support of the current manager, Steve McLaren, has been no less full-blooded.

Yesterday, McLaren and his team provided at the very least something of a down-payment on the kind of reward that has so doggedly eluded the most generous and uncomplaining of club owners since the old steelman, Jack Walker, fuelled the dreams of Blackburn Rovers.

For Gibson there was the thrill of at last getting his hands on something tangible, something to banish, at least for a little while, all those days of pain and disillusionment.

Certainly he could luxuriate in the pleasure of those loyal fans who a few years ago greeted the sadness of a season of two lost cup finals and relegation with the wry reflection that they had experienced two weddings gone wrong and a funeral.

The Carling Cup, heaven knows, is not one of the great football prizes. Arsenal tried to win it with their reserve team and the club Middlesbrough overcame yesterday had shamelessly admitted that the price of their appearance in the Millennium Stadium was to have surrendered their place in the infinitely more prestigious FA Cup to no one mightier than Tranmere Rovers.

Middlesbrough's achievement, when you think about it, has been to fight on all fronts and win a place in European competition. Given the quality of some of their play yesterday, especially from the acute, scampering Juninho, the often imperious Mendieta and, before the demands of his lonely front-running role drained the last of his resources, Joseph-Desiré Job, there is reason to believe it will be more than a token presence on the continental stage.

McLaren, like Allardyce, has been touted as a potential native son successor to Eriksson and yesterday it was a proposition that carried rather more credence. There is, though, much work to do if this is not something more than another piece of patriotic fancy.

Bolton, inevitably, showed some of those qualities which have marked their remarkable graduation to Premiership safety. Jay-Jay Okocha and Ivan Campo produced moments of distinction and there were times when the World Cup and European Championship winner, Youri Djorkaeff, seemed on the point of adding more weight to his pre-match assertion that "trophies are the opium of champions".

In the end, however, it was Middlesbrough who delivered the most persuasive evidence but they were a team of more rounded accomplishment.

In Juninho they had a moral force as much as a player of unending optimism and Mendieta evoked memories of the days when he was the toast of Valencia.

There was a chemistry which they imposed upon their teams, one which at times lifted this climax of a minor tournament on to another plane.

Not that Steve Gibson needed any reinforcement of his joy. He has had a long, and at times visciously disappointing, journey but this was, perhaps, a point of arrival.

For others, and maybe not least Sam Allardyce, it was something of a reminder that nothing in football can be guaranteed.