Winning ways a distant memory for beleaguered Robson

 

COMING as it did on St Stephen's Day, Bryan Robson's startling admission: "I'd forgotten what winning was like," was too late for those quotes of the year round-ups. However, neither that nor its quiet delivery should diminish the significance of the statement.

After all, if there is a shared perception of the man it is of Robson the warrior, Robson the winner.

Yet here he was in the bowels of the Riverside, confessing his relief about a 4-2 victory over a fast-falling Everton. Although, as his expensively assembled team had just won a league game at the 13th time of asking - a 3 1/2-month run that had saw Middlesbrough plummet from six to 17th in the table - Robson's relief was understandable and as he reflected on 1996 he must have felt that rather than it being the year that Middlesbrough consolidated their re-emergence with a regular place in the top six, it will instead be recalled as Robson's annus horribilis.

Having scooped the rest of football by purchasing the Brazilian Footballer of the Year, Juninho, Robson then added further exotic talent in Branco, Emerson and Fabrizio Ravanelli, who had been a European Cup winner with Juventus in May. It seemed a side of ability and substance was being built on Teesside, not one that would have genuine worries about relegation by Christmas.

But this is the case as the statistics make painfully clear. Between St Stephen's Day 1995 and 1996 Middlesbrough played 38 league games, winning only six of them. A further 10 were drawn, but 22 were lost. Taken as a 38-game Premiership campaign, Middlesbrough would have finished a point below last season's bottom club, Bolton.

With half of this season gone, only four games have been won, the same number of victories as Brighton. By any criteria this is a poor record, but when set against an outlay of £25 million it is astonishing.

Few managers could survive it - Coventry, Leeds and Blackburn, currently all with more points than Middlesbrough, have all replaced their managers - yet Robson's position, according to his chairman Steve Gibson, is strong and will remain so until his contract expires In 1999.

Even a well-publicised drink with a Manchester drag queen has not affected Robson's security because ultimately, in Gibson's words: "Bryan Robson has been the catalyst for all of this." For the first time in his career serious questions may be being asked of Robson's competence, but not by his chairman.

"We've had to learn very quickly," said Gibson yesterday. "It's been new to Bryan, new to me and new to the town. We have had disappointments, but with results rather than performances, and a bad six months happens to everyone. Football is very short term, win or lose, but we are taking a long term view."

Gibson concedes that it is a vista which now incorporates relegation. "it would be a major setback, but we are not talking about that. Our fans are quite knowledgeable and they've not had the excitement in the past - we've not won anything. What they want to see is ambition and since Bryan joined they have seen the means to achieving those ambitions.

A barometer of emotion, the letters page of the local paper, is similarly devoid of criticism of Robson and suggests large swathes of the Teesside public agree with Gibson's opinions. Furthermore, when they present the fact that only 6,982 turned up at Ayresome Park to watch Charlton the month before Robson's recruitment in May 1994, their logic is persuasive.

But where to now, though, for Middlesbrough? "It's a big week for us coming up," said Robson after Saturday's 6-0 dismissal of Chester City from the FA Cup - a scoreline which should not conceal the fact that Chester had five clear chances themselves - and it begins tonight when Liverpool come to town for the League Cup quarter-final.

For the last time, possibly, a place a Europe awaits the eventual winners of the competition, but if expectancy is not exactly running at fever pitch on Teesside it is perhaps explained by nervous eyes peering toward the visit of Southampton at the weekend. As Gibson said, Middlesbrough fans are not at the stage "where expectation has replaced excitement" and, whereas tonight's game will not make or break their season, the Southampton result might.

Enthusiasm could take a buffeting and not just by the supporters; for although general interest about the League Cup may have been overtaken by concern about league status to the three players that have dominated Middlesbrough's year, victory tonight could be fundamental to their future with the club.

Emerson, Juninho and Ravanelli have gone to the north-east of England to win silverware not to be reluctant participants in a relegation dogfight. "Naturally," as the opening-day programme put it, "Ravanelli is here partly for the money" as are the Brazilian duo and doubtless any of the numerous other foreign players said to be Middlesbrough-bound. But, individually, all three are intensely ambitious. As Juninho said in the middle of their inglorious spell: "As long as the club keep to their assurances and are ambitious we will stay. But we have not come here just to play in the Premier League. We came here to win something.

JUNlNHO is worried about his international place, a concern Ravanelli shares, and the Italian also has fears about his distinctive head being absent from the television screens of Europe. They both know winning the League Cup could put them both back in the picture.

However, it is Emerson who has been the source of most turmoil and the latest repercussion of his largely manufactured shenanigans is dressing room poison that Neil Cox, for one, wants to forsake. A win tonight over a Liverpool team that beat Middlesbrough 5-1 only three weeks ago might not alter Cox's situation, but it would do much to restore calm by the Riverside and put the team in good shape to face Southampton.

Yet, even if Middlesbrough lose one, or both, the same boss will still be boss because fortunately for Bryan Robson, his reputation as a winner goes before him, even if the man himself forgot the meaning of the word.