Strong case for Boro defence

George Carman off the field, Mark Schwarzer on it; Simon Turnbull meets the giant goalkeeper behind a Riverside revival
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The Independent Online
If only Middlesbrough had been in possession of their QC three months ago there probably would have been no need for the tricky away fixture they face against the Premier League in London on Wednesday morning. Mark Schwarzer is such a Quality Custodian that Boro could have propped up 10 outfield players on crutches at Ewood Park on 21 December and still held out for a draw. Three points courtesy of George Carman's text- book defending would certainly help, but if the Riverside remains on the Premiership map in May, Middlesbrough will be even more indebted to its most celebrated son - albeit in a particularly circumnavigatory way.

In his four weeks as the latest recruit to Bryan Robson's burgeoning foreign legion, Schwarzer has tightened the case for Boro's previously suspect defence. Middlesbrough's saviour home and away against Stockport in the Coca-Cup semi-finals, he has also succeeded, with his agile, assured goalkeeping, in staunching the flow of leaked Premiership goals. It is just as well that James Cook chose to drop anchor at Botany Bay 227 years ago. Home to Schwarzer happens to be the megatropolis the good captain and Boro boy inadvertently spawned in the course of his exploratory endeavours - or Endeavour, perhaps.

Sat at the wheel of his club car in the surreal shadow of the North Sea Producer, the giant tanker docked next to Middlesbrough's ground, the giant goalkeeper laughed at the irony. "I can remember learning that Captain Cook came from the north of England," he said, recalling his Sydney schooldays, "but I didn't know he came from Middlesbrough." It is a happier coincidence than the one ominously quoted upon Schwarzer's arrival from Bradford City a month ago. Last season he was with Kaiserslautern when they achieved the bitter-sweet double of relegation from the Bundesliga and victory in the German Cup final. Yet, as the engaging, eloquent Australian is eager to stress, there are key differences between Kaiserslautern's plight last season and Middlesbrough's present predicament.

Not least is the fact that Schwarzer's name is the first on Robson's team-sheet. At Kaiserslautern he was edged out of the first-team picture after just four games. When they lost their top-flight status, failing to win at Bayer Leverkusen on the final day of the Bundesliga season, Schwarzer was not even on bench duty. "I got dropped because of one mistake," he said. "We lost 3-0 away to Hansa Rostock and the second goal was my mistake. I never got a chance again.

"We had a lot of international players...Miroslav Kadlec, Pavel Kuka, Andreas Brehme, Martin Wagner, Stefan Kuntz, Michael Schjonberg. In that respect, there is a similarity with Middlesbrough. You look at all the big-name players here and you think: how come they're down the bottom of the table? But it's an entirely different situation really.

"There were a lot of internal political problems at Kaiserslautern. Three of the senior players and the assistant coach ganged up on the coach and got rid of him. It's different at Middlesbrough. For one reason or another, things were not working out individually for some of the players. But now we're getting it together. We've proven it over the last three or four weeks. I watch the games afterwards on television and I think: Jeez, we really did play well!"

The difference, as the genial Juninho acknowledged after his bewitching display against Blackburn on Wednesday, is that the Brazilian and his creative colleagues are now crossing the half-way line assured by the back-up of a significantly sounder defence in the event of their attacking forays breaking down. Even if the opposition manage to get past Gianluca Festa and Nigel Pearson, who are forging a promising central defensive partnership, they have to contend with Schwarzer. And in six games the 6ft 4in Australian international has become a formidable last line of defence for Middlesbrough.

There were those who frowned on the fee Robson agreed to pay, which gave Bradford a pounds 1m profit on the pounds 250,000 investment they made only in November. But Schwarzer looks a bargain at the price, a sudden inflation that did not surprise the pounds 1.25m man himself. "I've always believed I could play like I did at Bradford and like I have here," he said. "I'm only 24 and there's a lot of room for improvement. Because I only played four games at Kaiserslautern last season, they couldn't ask for a lot of money for me."

Kaiserslautern could probably not afford to buy him back now. Not that Schwarzer would even consider the prospect. Some 10,000 miles from Sydney and its Harbour Bridge, he feels contentedly at home among the cosmopolitan Tees set. And that is more than he can say about the three years he spent in the land of his father, initially with Dynamo Dresden. Hans Schwarzer was a state-representative wrestler in Baden-Baden before he emigrated to Sydney three decades ago; his son, with the appropriately safe pair of hands, could net get to grips with German life.

"To be honest, in the end I just had to get out of the place," Schwarzer junior confessed. "I have a German passport and my family are German but my mentality is totally different to the average German mentality. They seem very money-orientated. And I didn't like that mentality. They can be difficult with foreigners, too, and, being Australian, having been brought up in a multi-cultural society, that's one thing I can't stand.

"I like the multi-cultural influence back home. I think it's great. You've got the Italians, the Greeks. You've got their food and their customs. You get to see what they're like. You get to see what their mentality is like. You can say, 'Well, Jeez, they were nice. I wouldn't mind going to their country.'" No wonder Schwarzer has taken to life down by the Riverside with such obvious relish. He lined up on Wednesday night with two Brazilians, two Italians, a Dane, a Welshman and just four English natives. But surely the bleak industrial landscape had him pining for Bondi beach?

Apparently not. "Middlesbrough is not a bad place," Schwarzer said. "It's only natural that an industrial town, wherever it is in the world, is not going to be the most picturesque. I can understand that it might have been difficult for the likes of Juninho, Emerson and Ravanelli to settle. It took me a good nine months to get used to Dresden when I moved there from Sydney. In the end, though, it's the people that count. And the people here have been great to me."

They have good reason to be. Had Schwarzer not performed such heroics in recent weeks, Middlesbrough would probably be relying on their Queen's Counsel to save them. As it is, their inspirational goalkeeper is able to say with conviction: "We can stay up without those three points. We don't have to rely on them. We've got games in hand over everyone. We can determine our own future. That's the way everybody's got to look at it if we lose the appeal."

Win or lose on Wednesday, you get the feeling that Middlesbrough will not be disappearing down under the Premiership - not while they can depend on their saviour from Down Under.

Middlesbrough FC v The FA Carling Premier League

Date: Wednesday 26 March.

Venue: Raddison Hotel, Heathrow.

Kick-off: 10.30am.

Referee: Football Association. Three-man appeals panel to be announced on the day.

Middlesbrough: George Carman QC (right) has been called up to fight against the Premier League disciplinary commission's decision, at Lancaster Gate on 14 January, to punish Boro with a three-point penalty and a pounds 50,000 fine for failing to fulfil the Premiership fixture against Blackburn at Ewood Park on 21 December. Boro had 17 players injured, suspended or on loan and a further six suffering from a viral infection. Their manager Bryan Robson and chief executive Keith Lamb will also attend. Will produce medical evidence and may threaten legal action if they lose; it is understood no specific Premier League rule covers such cases.

Premier League: Representatives yet to be confirmed. Will contend that restoring the points to Middlesbrough will set precedent for clubs to postpone fixtures on own terms. Boro notified the Premier League of their intentions less than 28 hours before the scheduled kick-off; Tony Parkes, Blackburn's caretaker manager, branded their actions akin to those of "a Sunday League side".

Coming soon? Blackburn Rovers v Middlesbrough, 16 April subject, according to the Middlesbrough programme, "to a satisfactory outcome to the hearing".