According to their manager, Southampton are seen as country bumpkins. "This bugs me a little bit," Dave Merrington said. He may have a valid point, considering that there was not a blade of grass anywhere near the corner of his lips, but then he was speaking as a man who knew that it was the opposition which had just made the unsophisticated howlers of lads from the sticks.
A long winter may still lie ahead for Southampton, who are not short of rustic airs, but Middlesbrough are in worrying de cline. By carelessly surrendering a lead for the second time in a week they succumbed to their fifth consecutive League defeat. Bryan Robson, their manager, was candid in recognising the frailties afterwards.
"It's a little bit of inexperience where we give the ball away once we have cleared our box," he said. "I was pleased with some things but because we have been forced to have youth in the wrong areas we are giving daft goals away at the moment."
Then, there was the sending-off which not only immediately preceded the decisive goal but further blemished Middlesbrough's fairly shoddy disciplinary record. Phil Whelan, having petulantly pushed Gordon Watson, proceeded shortly afterwards to execute a reckless foul tackle on the half-way line.
Robson, concerned principally with the first misdemeanour, said: "We lost the game through one player's indiscipline. He was being fouled but he should have got on with the game. He doesn't just let himself down. He lets his team-mates down. It's hard enough playing with 11 men away from home, let alone 10."
On all counts the phlegmatic Robson was correct so it was mildly surprising to learn that he would not be back in Teesside until Thursday. He is instead at England's training camp, an arrangement amicably and contractually agreed, but while his country's need is clear, Middlesbrough's requirements may be greater at present.
They took the lead in a first half of modest ambition when Nick Barmby's inventive run was altogether too much for stoic Southampton. Neil Shipperley's equaliser embodied Middlesbrough's defensive innocence.
The free-kick which followed Whelan's departure led to the winner. It was desperately unfortunate for Gary Walsh who palmed the ball on to Richard Hall's head in making a flying save. Not only that, but it followed a stunning stop in the first half when Walsh went low to his left to push aside a devilish Shipperley header. He may need more like it if his defence continues to play with the cunning of yokels.
Goals: Barmby (44) 0-1, Shipperley (64) 1-1, Hall (71) 2-1.
Southampton (4-4-2) Beasant; Dodd, Hall, Monkou, Charlton; Oakley (Watson, 60), Magilton, Venison, Walters; Shipperley (Neilson, 85), Le Tissier. Substitute not used: McDonald.
Middlesbrough (5-3-2) Walsh; Cox, Pearson, Vickers, Whelan, Morris; Blackmore, Stamp (O'Halloran, 33), Moore (Hignett, 80); Barmby, Wilkinson. Substitute not used: Fjortoft.
Referee: K Burge (Tonypandy).
Sending-off: Middlesbrough: Whelan.
Bookings: Southampton: Walters. Middlesbrough: O'Halloran.
Man of the match: Magilton.
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