Robson learning tough lessons

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Aston Villa 1 Middlesbrough 0

Bryan Robson combines his managerial duties at Middlesbrough with the ownership of a nationwide chain of shops selling greetings cards. Today he reaches an anniversary that he may not to care to be reminded of, let alone celebrate.

Twelve months ago, his team went to Queen's Park Rangers lying sixth in the Premiership and anticipating Europe after beating Liverpool. A draw with a side who were ultimately relegated heralded the start of a slump which now stretches to 38 games - the equivalent of a full League season - of which only seven have been won.

Defeat by Aston Villa, themselves making an unconvincing start to the third year of Brian Little's reign, was Middlesbrough's 21st during their year of living dangerously. A return of 31 points would have been too few to survive in any of the four Premiership seasons.

In the context of this wretched run, the midweek triumph against Newcastle in the Coca-Cola Cup begins to look like the kind of one-off performance lower-division clubs pull off periodically in cup competitions, rather than a true measure of the merit of Robson's polyglot team.

They were, it is true, without the suspended Emerson on Saturday, but his future at the Riverside appears decidedly short-term in any case. The spiteful challenge by Alan Wright which was to deprive them of their other Brazilian, Juninho, left Fabrizio Ravanelli with the sort of service which could turn a striker grey.

The winner followed a harsh penalty award, Dwight Yorke falling as if hit by Ravanelli's pay packet after Neil Cox's barely detectable tug on his shirt. The Tobagan's clinical spot kick gave Robson the excuse to fish out enough red herrings to re-stock the Tees. The came "at a bad time" (leaving just 51 minutes to equalise); Villa simply "sat back" in the second half (although Michael Oakes did not have a save to make until the 74th minute), and so on.

The former England captain also talked of the away side needing to "silence the crowd" before coming into their own. There was more danger here of spectators being sent to sleep. Villa, as the home team and with a far greater spread of creative players, must take some responsibility for this soporific state of affairs.

Little described their display with words like "frustrating" and "sloppy". Savo Milosevic's comeback merely vindicated the intention to off load him - how they must wish they had succeeded in signing Les Ferdinand 18 months ago - while Mark Draper's faded lustre had a knock-on effect in terms of colleagues failing to get into threatening wide positions.

Milosevic's fellow Serb, Sasa Curcic, was as badly missed as Emerson; Little felt the contest was "crying out" for someone with his flair. Shame, then, that he declined to summon the substitute. He was off-colour, apparently, but then so were Villa. The time is approaching when they must decide whether Curcic and Draper are a compatible coupling in midfield.

The former may well come in at West Ham on Wednesday. Villa's visit to the capital, a week after Wimbledon broke their grip on the Coca-Cola Cup, marks the start of an eight-game sequence which should establish whether, as their manager believes, they can improve on last season's fourth place. Between 22 December and 18 January, they meet all six of the clubs above them in succession.

Middlesbrough, meanwhile, receive Leicester tomorrow, in what already resembles a relegation six-pointer. A 10th match without a win might cause once-unthinkable cracks in the Robson charisma. Cards bearing rather more unpalatable tidings than those available in his stores have been handed out for less.

Goal: Yorke (pen 39) 1-0.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Oakes; Ehiogu, Staunton, Scimeca; Nelson, Townsend, Draper, Taylor, Wright; Yorke, Milosevic. Substitutes not used: Joachim, Hendrie, Tiler, Curcic, Rachel (gk).

Middlesbrough (4-3-1-2): Walsh; Fleming, Cox, Whyte, Morris; Stamp, Mustoe, Hignett; Juninho (Campbell, 60); Ravanelli, Beck. Substitutes not used: Whelan, Liddle, Fjortoft, Roberts (gk).

Referee: G Willard (Worthing).

Bookings: Aston Villa: Wright, Milosevic. Middlesbrough: Fleming, Walsh, Cox, Mustoe.

Man of the match: Staunton.

Attendance: 39,053.