Robson faces fight to silence his critics

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The Independent Football

Bryan Robson has never shirked a challenge. The 42-year-old former England captain, the first man to lift the FA Cup three times, does not know the meaning of the word "failure".

Bryan Robson has never shirked a challenge. The 42-year-old former England captain, the first man to lift the FA Cup three times, does not know the meaning of the word "failure".

But Robson, the Middlesbrough manager, is facing perhaps the most difficult test of his management career to date as he attempts to pick up the club's season after his side suffered a giant-killing double.

The 2-1 Worthington Cup quarter-final defeat at Tranmere Rovers on Tuesday, although an improvement on the the FA Cup surrender at Second Division Wrexham four days earlier, has proved the final straw for Robson's increasingly vocal critics.

The events of the last week ended Boro's chances of winning a trophy this season. What now remains is the challenge of reviving their fast receding hopes of a qualifying for European competition for the first time or, at least, finishing higher in the Premiership than their ninth place of last season.

The disappointment of those two cup defeats has galvanised the anti-Robson brigade, but in the chairman, Steve Gibson, Robson has a loyal ally.

Robson's critics were unhappy at decision to substitute his Brazilian midfielder, Juninho, during the 0-0 draw with Wimbledon on 27 November, and there has also been growing disquiet with the manager's reliance on a five-man defence, although injuries forced him to field a flat back four at Tranmere.

Robson arrived at Ayresome Park in May 1994 after ending his long and successful playing career at Manchester United. Last year's top-10 Premiership finish was seen as the foundation for a new beginning, and the addition of Paul Ince and Christian Ziege to that squad and the return of Juninho this summer further increased expectations.

Ince was ruled out after surgery on a hernia for both cup defeats and Gary Pallister played only 40 minutes at Wrexham because of a back injury.

Juninho is yet to convince Robson that he should invest the £7m or so it would take to make his temporary move from Atletico Madrid permanent.

Robson, who signed a five-year deal last year, said: "When I came here five-and-a-half years ago everybody said around the area that they'd be quite happy if we were just a mid-table Premiership side," he said. "Middlesbrough fans have always been used to either promotion or relegation and they've always lived on a knife-edge. That's why in the cup ties over the last few years they've really enjoyed it because we've been to a few finals.

"But after last year when we were knocked out of both cups and finished mid-table, you see people getting restless."

Robson's immediate task is to lift his players for the visit of Tottenham to the Riverside on Saturday and to end a run of only one win in seven games.

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