Sheringham fortifies over-thirties

England's discarded striker leaves the bench to make his benchmark and turn tables on old boy Robson
Click to follow
The Independent Football

A very tasty contest this. Not haute cuisine, but enough flavour for the most discerning palate. Everyone among the Manchester United faithful yesterday, from quaffers of Chablis and spreaders of caviar to the chewers of crabsticks and feasters on fish and chips, would have appreciated the outcome, if not necessarily the manner of United's pursuit of it, never mind those much-maligned consumers of prawn sandwiches.

A very tasty contest this. Not haute cuisine, but enough flavour for the most discerning palate. Everyone among the Manchester United faithful yesterday, from quaffers of Chablis and spreaders of caviar to the chewers of crabsticks and feasters on fish and chips, would have appreciated the outcome, if not necessarily the manner of United's pursuit of it, never mind those much-maligned consumers of prawn sandwiches.

Roy Keane, that Gordon Ramsay of football, the man whose denigration of his own clientele - as we should probably describe yesterday's spectators - may have antagonised many with his midweek comments. Certainly, the Irishman could be accused of snapping at the hand that feeds him in complaining about the gentrification of the atmosphere at Old Trafford. Yes, Roy, the game we once knew has changed. So, it might be emphasised, have players' salaries - radically. One of Keane's predecessors, Captain Marvel himself, Bryan Robson, had also stuck his finger into the whole fish stew by suggesting that Keane had got it wrong.

Yet, whatever the merits or otherwise of his views, the United captain responded to the furore with a forthright performance, in which he galvanised a stirring retrieval of a contest when, on the hour, victory had looked suspiciously like eluding the home team for the second time in two years.

"Roy was marvellous," purred his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. "He was the real driving force out there. The crowd responded to him and he deserved that. They were terrific to him." David Beckham, too, reacted to his award of the England captaincy with a performance of authority and awareness, epitomised by his part in United's equaliser.

For an hour, however, there was the suspicion that United's "bogey" team - and, frankly, there aren't too many of them around - might yet again tarnish the proud record of Sir Alex Ferguson's team, who had been unbeaten in the 34 Premiership games since Middlesbrough won here in December 1998. Maybe it was the memory of that 3-2 defeat that brought the worst out of United for too much of the first half, but then saw them respond with the victory that eases them two points clear of Arsenal, surprisingly held at home by Derby County.

Ferguson's only negative post-match pronouncement was the roll call of his wounded. His captain will miss Ireland's midweek friendly against Finland because of a hamstring injury, while Wes Brown has damaged his knee and will be unavailable for England on Wednesday.

This could have ended in Ferguson's 100th Premiership defeat or Robson's 100th victory as managers. An unlikely scenario, perhaps, before the game, but until Nicky Butt pounced for an equaliser just after the hour, and then the substitute Teddy Sheringham - who else? - dispatched a splendid winner for his 13th goal of the season, it looked entirely feasible. Instead Robson could only ponder Middlesbrough's fifth successive defeat. "The boys gave everything to me today," he reflected. "But United are the best side in the country at chasing a game."

Before the kick-off, Sheringham received his Carling Player of the Month award. He then went and sat on the substitutes' bench. It has been that kind of week for United's top scorer; lauded, but overlooked, presumably on the grounds of his advancing years, having this week already suffered Peter Taylor's England execution of all over the age of 30.

United had begun affairs sweeping through a beleaguered Middlesbrough rearguard with abandon. In the first 12 minutes, Keane, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt were pinging the ball through as though it was a practice game. Thankfully for Robson, constantly on his feet gesticulating to his defence, Yorke, the recipient of all their passes, either positioned his attempts too close to Mark Schwarzer or the Australian thwarted him with splendid goalkeeping.

United's failure to profit from their early dominance gradually produced a belated sense of belief within Middlesbrough's ranks. If there was one man who clearly possessed the stature and ability to disturb United's equilibrium it was the World Cup winner, Christian Karembeu. Most of the visitors' best approach work had emanated from the midfielder and he duly produced a shock to United's system just after the half-hour.

Karembeu played a superb lofted one-two with Hamilton Ricard as the pair surged through the United defence. As Fabien Barthez advanced, Karembeu cleverly lobbed his compatriot for a goal which brought a renewed spring in the visitors' heels, and turned Old Trafford into a pit of raw nerves.

Soon afterwards, Ferguson brought on Sheringham for the injured Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The loss of Brown at the interval, and his replacement by Ronnie Wallwork alongside Gary Neville in central defence, meant that the home side were now deficient in height in that area. It scarcely mattered; this was not to be a half when too much was demanded of the home defence.

United soon turned up the heat, their supporters increased the volume and, within three minutes, they had wrested the advantage from the visitors. First, just after the hour, Butt, who had been culpable in the build-up to Middlesbrough's goal, turned the ball home after Beckham had crossed with precision. Then Sheringham unleashed the shot of a man on top of his game into the far corner.

Robson threw on Alen Boksic but Middlesbrough failed to produce the semblance of an opportunity, though United offered them a few invitations in the final minutes. But then, it wouldn't be Ferguson's men at the moment if they hadn't sent their fans home with their emotions shot through.

Comments