The day for tears on Teesside

Coca-Cola Cup final: Middlesbrough travel to London in search of an overdue piece of silverware and history; Simon Turnbull expects Robson's men to end the long wait for a major trophy
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The Independent Online
There has been something different about the Riverside Stadium this week. The North Sea Producer, the giant tanker and long-time neighbour of Middlesbrough Football Club, has finally weighed anchor and gone.

Having pushed the Boro boat out to bring so much footballing produce from overseas (Perugia, Sao Paulo and Sydney, to name but three ports of call), Captain Marvel expects no less than its metaphorical coming in at Wembley today. As Bryan Robson proclaimed, while he prepared his multi-national crew: "I said when I came here that Boro needed to win a major trophy for the first time. This is our chance."

The Coca-Cola Cup final meeting with Leicester City is Middlesbrough's chance to put straight the historical record that defines them as second- class citizens of England's football fraternity. The last time they won a cup competition, by the banks of the Thames in November 1975, their goalkeeper was too embarrassed to join the lap of honour. "I went straight to the dressing-room," Jim Platt recalled of the night a goalless draw at Fulham clinched the Anglo-Scottish Cup. That apart, Middlesbrough's most recent claim to national honours dates back to a smallpox epidemic 99 years ago.

An outbreak on Teesside caused the club's vital match against Thornaby to be played 14 miles away in the Cleveland Hills at Brotton. Victory earned the Victorian Boro boys a place in the Amateur Cup final of 1898. When they returned from Crystal Palace with the cup, they were paraded through the town with what Arthur Appleton describes in his definitive history of north-east football, Hotbed of Soccer, as "a gay brass band".

Boro's thus far unchecked progress on the cup trail this season has developed into a crusade. The sneers prompted by the brightest talent from Brazil wishing to further his football education on Teesside, and by the acute home-sickness which afflicted Robson's foreign legion before Christmas, cut deep into parochial pride.

The immediate view from Juninho's home may not be picture-postcard material, but breathtaking scenery is but a 10-minute drive away. The same cannot be said of Premiership homes in London, or indeed in Liverpool or Manchester. The insults have stuck so painfully in the craw, Wembley's red half would welcome a Harvey Smith salute to the capital and its critics should Nigel Pearson follow in Buchan's path (Martin that is) and hoist a trophy at the top of the 39 steps to the Royal Box.

"We've come in for a lot of criticism this season from various sections of the media," the Middlesbrough captain said, "and the only way we can put the record straight is to be successful. It doesn't matter what you say, what you deny, ultimately it's the way you perform on the pitch that's the yardstick you're measured by. We're in one final; we've done a lot of hard work to get off the bottom of the League. But the job is only half done. We've got to see it through"

That Middlesbrough look like completing the transformation of their seemingly calamitous campaign is, as their manager maintained on Thursday, not simply because Juninho has been playing like a one-man world- beater. It may have seemed a statement of the obvious when Robson said: "Juninho can't take on Leicester by himself," but the broader picture beyond the most prominent piece of Boro's revivalist jigsaw has been greatly ignored. The signing of Mark Schwarzer and Gianluca Festa and the return of Pearson have provided a stable base, while Craig Hignett, Robbie Mustoe and Clayton Blackmore have raised their standards to the levels set by the league of nations around them.

To halt the burgeoning Boro bandwagon, Martin O'Neill knows he needs a spanner or two to throw into the works. Having failed to do so with the cup-tied Matt Elliott, Steve Guppy and Ian Marshall at his disposal in the League meeting at Filbert Street three weeks ago, his cause would seem to have a losing look to it. Much will depend on how Simon Grayson fares in his task as Juninho's shadow. But Neil Lennon, Garry Parker and Muzzy Izzet are quite capable of getting a grip in midfield. And Emile Heskey and Steve Claridge can be relied upon to put Middlesbrough's newly acquired defensive credentials under the closest of scrutiny.

The League Cup happens to be the only major prize Leicester have plundered in their 113-year history but that conspicuous success dates back to 1964, when the final was a down-market two-legged affair. The wily O'Neill is sure to unleash his Foxes in hungry mood, and filching the tin pot for their Filbert Street lair is not beyond them. The chances are, though, that Boro will be pushing their boat out into Europe next season.