Fulham 1 Middlesbrough 0: McClaren's 'kids' suffer unjust defeat

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The Independent Football

Four days before Middlesbrough hope to make history by winning their first European trophy, Steve McClaren - who made his own mark in the record books last week when he was appointed England's next manager - decided to enter another footnote.

He fielded probably the youngest-ever team to appear in the Premiership, with an average age of just under 20, and, as McClaren later pointed out, with "15 of the 16 born within 30 miles of the club's stadium". The exception was Malcolm Christie, the only player who also cost a fee. This home-grown squad was, McClaren said, the "dream" of chairman Steve Gibson and the two talked for half an hour on the team coach before disembarking.

"What a legacy to leave for the next manager," said McClaren, after this unjust defeat which was his last domestic match in charge and which lifted Fulham up to 12th place in the league. Next up for Boro it's Seville in the Uefa Cup final in Eindhoven on Wednesday. McClaren said "four or five" of his youngsters from yesterday will be involved but it appears that only Lee Cattermole - at 18 the youngest player to ever captain Boro - has a chance of starting.

The fiercely-competitive midfielder, who impressed along with James Morrison and the gifted winger Adam Johnson, beat a club record set in the 1980s by Colin Cooper. And the veteran defender, now 39, came on for his first appearance of the season, and his last for Boro, with just five minutes to go.

But there was pragmatism amid the sentiment. This was Boro's sixth match in 14 days and although McClaren declared he had selected a team he thought could win, and a team which went on to produce a "heroic" performance, his eyes were on the bigger reward. Even so that meant sacrificing the opportunity of earning another £1m in prize money from finishing higher in the table.

But, if anything, his line-up appeared to distract Fulham. "I would have preferred him (McClaren) to have played his strongest team," the manager Chris Coleman said afterwards. "When he has gone so heavily with the youngsters they play with a bit more freedom than we did."

In the end they succumbed to a late penalty, calmly rolled in by Heidar Helguson after the substitute had been pushed over in desperation by David Wheater as he ran on to Philippe Christanval's searching long ball forward. Until then Fulham, despite their vastly more experienced team, had struggled. Coleman also conceded that "stalemate" had been reached in the contract talks with midfielder Steed Malbranque who, also, had one of his least effective games.

The composure in the contest had come from the visitors. They crafted their chances while Fulham attempted to capitalise on their aerial dominance. Danny Graham, 20, clipped a shot just beyond the near post while a Johnson free-kick was smartly turned away by Antti Niemi. For Fulham the disappointing Collins John headed into the side-netting, when he should have scored, and then flicked a shot wide from Wayne Bridge's clever curling pass. Time and again the Middlesbrough defenders got their bodies in the way.

Indeed for the second home game running there were boos at half-time for Fulham - although more mooted than against Wigan Athletic.

Eventually Fulham got the break. "It was not pretty," Coleman later admitted. "But we got the result."

McClaren will settle for the same against Seville. England will be expecting both.

Goal: Helguson (84) 1-0.

Fulham (4-4-2): Niemi; Volz, Bocanegra, Christanval, Rosenior; Malbranque, Brown, Diop, Bridge; McBride (Radzinski, 70), John (Helguson, 56). Substitutes not used: Crossley (gk), Goma, Elliott.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Turnbull; Davies, Bates, Wheater, Taylor; Morrison, Cattermole (Cooper, 85), Kennedy, Johnson; Graham (Craddock, 82), Christie (Walker, 62). Substitutes not used: Knight (gk), McMahon.

Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).

Booked: Fulham Brown. Middlesbrough Graham.

Man of the match: Johnson.

Attendance: 22,434.