Mustoe moves on from beer and chips era

Long-serving midfielder has seen Middlesbrough's status and salaries soar over 10 seasons.
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The Independent Online

A footballer's testimonial is rather like a second wedding. Weeks disappear in a blizzard of organisation, ensuring he is the centre of attention for an hour and a half in front of every friend and relative he has ever known.

A footballer's testimonial is rather like a second wedding. Weeks disappear in a blizzard of organisation, ensuring he is the centre of attention for an hour and a half in front of every friend and relative he has ever known.

There are corporate golf days instead of stag nights, the honeymoon usually lasts less than a fortnight but the feeling of relief when the last guest has departed is the same. Tomorrow is 31-year-old Robbie Mustoe's big day, although the only similarity between the club he joined 10 years ago and the one he will lead out against Borussia Dortmund tomorrow is the name. They still call it Middlesbrough.

At the club's training complex in the Yorkshire village of Hurworth, on which millions have been lavished, Christian Karembeu was nursing his Jeep into a corner of the car-park. In 1990 the only Christians you were likely to see around Ayresome Park were those praying for the soul of a club that had avoided relegation to the Third Division by two points. In 1993-94, average attendances barely made 10,000.

Yesterday, the formalities to complete the transfer of Alen Boksic from Lazio were completed, Karembeu continued to look for a farm in the Cleveland hills, while Noel Whelan and Joseph-Desiré Job officially signed. Should Boksic receive his work permit and should reports of his £63,000-per-week wage be accurate, the striker will make more in 12 months than Middlesbrough turned over in the year Mustoe joined.

"When I first arrived, we trained on local parks," he said. "Bryan Robson taking over made it immediately a different club. I am sure that's what the chairman [Steve Gibson] had in mind when he appointed him. In one fell swoop he gave the club some glamour."

Ten years ago, the thought that Boro would spend the summer negotiating with Barcelona for one of their major players (Dani) would have been the stuff of schoolboy fantasy. Much of this is down to Robson's own stature in the game.

Here, we are perhaps too familiar with him but, if you imagine Michel Platini managing Lens in northern France's dying coalfields, you get some indication as to why these people come. The wages (£2.5m a year has reportedly been dangled in front of Christian Ziege) help but yesterday both Whelan and Job said much the same thing. They were here, in part, because of Robson.

The thought of Middlesbrough, a chemical town which sometimes seems like a wholly-owned subsidiary of ICI, competing for major European names has always seemed faintly ridiculous to southern minds.

One magazine helpfully drew Karembeu a map suggesting he might like to take his wife, the Wonderbra model Adriana Sklenarikova, for a trip to North Ormesby's Doggy Market (speciality: cheap checked shirts).

"It's easy to paint the area as a wasteland but I came here from an Oxfordshire village in the Cotswolds and I can say the countryside around here is almost as lovely," said Mustoe. "The road system is rather better; it sometimes took me an hour and a half to go from Witney to train with Oxford United."

Mustoe's midfield partners have included Emerson, Juninho and the two Pauls, Gascoigne and Ince. He has outlived nearly all of them, which says something for the fragile nature of footballing loyalties, and a lot for Mustoe's ability as an intelligent and adaptable midfielder.

"I was sorry to see Gazza go. He is probably the naturally kindest man I have ever met in football. I had a golf day and he gave me his putter, which he'd had since he was in the World Cup squad, to auction. Everton won't change him; he'll do things that will wind them up but deep down there's a heart of gold."

Mustoe admitted he enjoyed playing alongside Jamie Pollock and Mark Proctor in the days before Boro went big. Life with Juninho and Fabrizio Ravanelli may have been more interesting but it can hardly have been more fun in the dressing-room.

"Football has changed and mostly for the better," he said. "The foreigners are more professional and unquestionably look after themselves better. [Ravanelli claimed to have training schedules faxed to him from Juventus, so inadequate did he find the pre-Hurworth facilities]. It was fun having beers after a game and then stopping the team bus for fish and chips but those days are gone. We used to go out a lot as a group and the drinking was excellent to bond us as a unit but that rarely happens now. It's sad in a way, but you come into the gym here and see Gianluca Festa working out before and after training and you have to acknowledge the advances."

And yet for all the glamour Robson has brought to a club which before his arrival had never achieved so much as making an FA Cup semi-final, patience among fans is dangerously thin. When last season closed in a dreary 1-1 draw against a long-relegated Watford side, the team's lap of honour was booed. In February, after a 4-0 home defeat by Aston Villa notable for Gascoigne witlessly breaking his own arm, it seemed Robson would not last the week.

"I sometimes feel the fans don't appreciate just how far we have come," Mustoe said. "Bryan Robson hasn't changed; he has remained on a remarkably even keel given what he's experienced (three cup finals, two promotions and a relegation.)

"You have to maintain perspective; the last two seasons have been spent making Middlesbrough into an established top-flight club, something they haven't been for 20 years, and there are many teams who would give a lot for that."

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