Middlesbrough eye cups as Newcastle climb table


WIND is a terrible affliction. It is especially so in the world of football, where managers a lot of it and players prefer performing in pouring rain, hail or hot sunshine to stormy gusts. Nothing wrecks close control more than blow football.

On Saturday therefore, when the players went out for their prematch warm up, they must have feared the worst. From the town end a gale was blowing from the gap between the stands of such force and unpredictability that it was knocking over two corner flags at the same end of the ground in opposite directions.

The players made light of the elements, however, to produce a game of excitement and no little skill. That most of it came from the losing team was galling and encouraging for Middlesbrough's fans who, but for some wasteful finishing from Mikkel Beck and misfortune for Fabrizio Ravanelli, might have been celebrating their removal from the bottom spot.

The Teessiders should be used to contradiction this season. Foreign hope has brought only domestic despair success in the Cups, failure in the League, and no wonder Bryan Robson looked like a child trying to smile through the tears afterwards.

Robson knows his position is secure because of the chairman's loyalty but, should Middlesbrough go down would Robson want the embarrassment? On Saturday night he was given a taste of a possible future when Juninho flew home to play for Brazil against Poland and thereby misses Wednesday's re arranged League Cup semi final at Stockport because of his desire to re establish his international place. It is a task he would not feel possible if playing in the Nationwide League.

Middlesbrough have 13 games and a George Carmen solo to rescue the revolution. Twenty points seems about the requirement, perhaps less if they can win the crucial ones against Derby, West Ham, Nottingham Forest and Sunderland.

Twenty points will not be enough for Kenny Dalglish if Newcastle are to win the title Dalglish thinks the League may be won by the lowest total of points ever which, since three points for a win was introduced in 1981, was Arsenal's 76 points in 1989 that pipped Dalglish's Liverpool on goal difference. With 12 games to go Newcastle would need to win at least seven to match that total and hope Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal continue to drop points.

Few expect them to do so, although, as Dalglish says, Newcastle can only look after themselves. They started by keeping a clean sheet for the first time for eight games, because of a combination of Darren Peacock's 73rd minute goal line clearance, Ravanelli's disallowed goal, the woodwork and Shaka Hislop's series of smart stops.

"It's been a while," Hislop said of the last time he managed that, although he could equally have been talking about Alan Shearer's failure at the other end. As Middlesbrough were the first team that Shearer has not scored against in the League this season the new England captain was responsible for a lot of ripped up betting slips - 500 to 1 had been the odds against the feat and Shearer had obliged against 14 sides.

Five remained until Saturday, but Shearer never had a sniff all afternoon and it was left to Ferdinand to make the difference, beating Roberts with a fine, angled strike after eight minutes that took the wind out of Middlesbrough's sails.