Robson makes a point

Barnsley 1 Liddell 51 Middlesbrough 1 Fjortoft 38 Attendance: 11,711
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The Independent Online
THE First Division of the Endsleigh League is like a well - easy to fall into but difficult to get out of. Middlesbrough's recent history has illustrated it and yesterday at Oakwell they saw it again. In the space of 90 minutes they took the lead and glimpsed daylight, but in the end were grateful to cling on for a point.

Middlesbrough remain at the top of the table, but Bolton, who lost at Reading on Friday, can overhaul them by winning their game in hand. As their player-manager Bryan Robson said afterwards, however: "People have said when the tension sets in there would be some strange results. I think all the others would probably prefer our position to theirs. It's points in the bag that are the most important thing at this stage."

It was a match Barnsley really needed to win to sustain their own challenge for a place in the play-offs, and they might have succeeded with a spirited second-half performance after being dominated in the first. Now, however, they are five points adrift of fifth place. Andy Liddell, scorer of the goal that had equalised Jan-Aage Fjortoft's for Boro, was clean through on goal but was denied by Andy Miller's low save.

Actually, the oak in Oakwell was almost redundant, the rain lashed down on an already saturated pitch which worsened as the match went on. Tackles were always of the sliding variety. The ball rarely ran and the players often had to scoop the ball out from under their feet. It was a day to find out just how great was the desire for promotion.

There was no lack of it in the teams put out by the respective player managers, who were both missing on the field, Robson with an injury and Barnsley's Danny Wilson suspended. Both might have brought some order to the proceedings, though their influence was evident: Wilson played with three at the back and five in midfield; Robson had his assistant Viv Anderson - formerly manager of Barnsley - marshalling from the middle of the defence.

It was Middlesbrough's hunger to be free of such settings as this and reach the Premiership that came through first. Both ends of the ground are without cover, one being redeveloped giving the scene a gloomy aspect.

Boro created the better chances, notably when John Hendrie and Fjortoft combined to set up Clayton Blackmore, who shot over. Soon after, Hendrie's neat run took him to the byline and following his cross Graham Kavanagh's header was deflected wide. Jamie Pollock was the most assertive influence in midfield, often brushing aside the promising but lightweight 19-year- old Martin Bullock. Kavanagh lent solid support while Blackmore often dropped deeper to form a back five.

Middlesbrough duly took the lead just before half-time, moments after Neil Redfearn had sliced wide a chance for the home side. Receiving the ball on the edge of the Barnsley penalty area, Fjortoft curled home an excellent left-footed shot into Dave Watson's top right corner. It was the Norwegian's 27th goal of the season, the second since his £1.5m transfer from Swindon.

Barnsley were an entirely different proposition after the break and equalised within six minutes of the restart. Steve Davis floated a high ball to the far post where Liddell stole in behind Cox and headed down into the net. In their next attack Bullock was just wide with a low shot.

When Pollock volleyed on to the bar from Blackmore's cross, it was a rare break from Middlesbrough's rearguard action. Andy Payton shot just over, then flicked through Liddell, who profited from Steve Vickers's slip for that late chance.

With the miss probably went Barnsley's promotion hopes; sadly for Wilson, who has done an excellent job in keeping them near the top on limited resources, most of which are going into ground redevelopment. "I thought it was a great game," said Wilson. "It had everything that English football is about - chances, commitment and the weather."

It wasn't quite that good but a relieved Middlesbrough will not care; it was a day for focusing rather than finesse.