Robson's delicate balancing act in search of success

Middlesbrough continue to think big as they strive to become one of England's elite clubs
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Bryan Robson paved the way for Middlesbrough's latest bout of summer spending by saying he wanted to sign "four Christian Zieges". Alen Boksic and Christian Karembeu duly arrived, but yesterday the Boro manager failed to hold on to the real thing.

Bryan Robson paved the way for Middlesbrough's latest bout of summer spending by saying he wanted to sign "four Christian Zieges". Alen Boksic and Christian Karembeu duly arrived, but yesterday the Boro manager failed to hold on to the real thing.

Privately, many on Teesside are filled with a cold fury, feeling that Ziege had been "tapped" during the European Championship by Markus Babbel and Dietmar Hamann, who last summer had left Newcastle for Merseyside in a similar high-handed manner. While agreeing to a transfer, they have not accepted Liverpool's £5.5m offer, which may go to a tribunal.

Robson was in a conciliatory mood towards a player whose career, especially at international level, he believes he revived. "I can understand his reasons. He thinks Liverpool are a bigger club, which in terms of charisma they are. They have more of a history than Middlesbrough, but I was hoping he would stay so we could mount a real challenge ourselves."

The popular perception of Robson is a man who has spent vast sums of money (a £20m deficit and counting) on exotic foreigners, a little past their best, whose main aim is to leave as quickly and with as much loot as possible. A defining incident came on the morning of the 1997 FA Cup final when on the lawn of the team hotel the players, hacked off after a season in the same dressing-room as Fabrizio Ravanelli, began scuffling among themselves. Chelsea scored after 42 seconds.

This image, however, would be misleading. The "names" nearly all achieved something; Ravanelli and Juninho inspired Boro to two cup finals, Paul Merson was instrumental in winning them promotion. Ziege became, in Jan Molby's words, "the nearest thing to a left-sided David Beckham". Only Paul Gascoigne failed to make a significant impact and he, curiously, was the only one who did not ask to leave.

That they came to Teesside at all is remarkable. Gianluca Festa, who has proved the most enduring of Robson's foreign buys, said when he arrived: "Any normal, intelligent person would have stayed at Internazionale."

Although they have come a long, long way from Ayresome Park and what the Middlesbrough fanzine, Fly Me to the Moon, called "the terrace of despair of the Holgate End", Robson acknowledges that Middlesbrough's central weakness is that historically they have no pedigree.

They are the only Premiership club never to have won a trophy; even Bradford can boast an FA Cup final victory, although you would be 107 years old to have bought a drink legally to celebrate it.

In order to entice leading players, Middlesbrough have had to offer contracts which, for example, allowed Ziege to negotiate with any club that bid more than £5m, although he had to go to court to enforce it. Yesterday Robson said that in future "there will be no loopholes in any contracts again".

Middlesbrough also have to offer very high wages, although reports that Boksic, who describes Boro as "fascinating and beautiful", is on £63,000 a week have been denounced by the club, although they admit the rumours contain a central truth. Ziege's salary was some £2m a year.

"Once we get the players to have a look at Middlesbrough we do not have a problem, but we do have to pay over the odds to be able to do that," said Steve Gibson, the chairman who has bankrolled Robson's spending "to make Middlesbrough synonymous with a good team rather than cooling towers".

There is frustration among the rank-and-file playing staff at the way players like Ziege have treated Robson and Gibson. "It is going to be a long process for the club to get where they want to be," said Gary Pallister. "They need to build gradually. The manager is trying to bring in big-name players but you can see his frustration at times; if they make an impact, they want to move on to so-called bigger clubs."

How big Middlesbrough can be is questionable. The season before Robson's arrival in May 1994, they attracted an average gate of 10,000 to Ayresome; on a par with Burnley. Inside two years this had trebled, but now there are signs of weariness.

Despite a marvellous debut by Boksic which saw him scoring twice in the 3-1 victory at Coventry, the Riverside was far from full for Tottenham's visit on Tuesday, which saw Boro go top, albeit on alphabetical order. "I think the fans are right to reserve judgement," said Robson, pointing out that this afternoon's game with Leeds is sold out. "They were disappointed by us not re-signing Juninho, one of their favourites. They are going to sit back, see who I bring in and then make a decision."

On the inconclusive early evidence, Robson has bought well, although Boksic, who was far from fit during his final season with Lazio, may have to be nursed through the early weeks.

There are fewer doubts about Christian Karembeu, who threatens to build a formidable partnership with Paul Ince. "Real Madrid used him as a wing-back or a full back," said Robson. "But I knew his favourite position was in midfield where he won the player-of-the-year award in Italy. It will be interesting to see them against top-drawer teams. Christian is a box-to-box player, while Paul likes to sit on the ball and pass. It's a nice balance."

Balance is the key to Middlesbrough's success. Before, Robson had attempted to compete by bolting on world-class players like Ravanelli and Juninho to what was essentially a First Division team. With a certain grim inevitability, the unstable, fragile structure eventually toppled over. This time, the squad is stronger and younger; Boro's equaliser on Tuesday night was scored by Mark Summerbell, a 23-year-old from Durham, who, unlike Ziege, will not be using his personal website to announce legal action against his employers.