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Boro are laughing all the way to the Branca.

BORO piled the promotion pressure on local rivals Sunderland with their first win of the Gazza era.

It was a brilliant second-half hat-trick from Italian ace Marco Branca that destroyed a woeful Bury side.

But it was home debutant Paul Gascoigne who provided Boro with the platform for a promotion comeback with his authoritative midfield display.

And Branca immediately insisted England must take both Gazza and fellow Teesside hero Paul Merson to the World Cup this summer.

"Paul Gascoigne must go to France," asserted Branca.

"He is a great player, and great players deserve a World Cup stage.

"Paul is still coming back from injury and he needs the support of his colleagues.

"He needs time to find his rhythm and fitness, but I think it is vital that he is in the England side.

"And Paul Merson has great technique and vision. If he goes with England he will do very well."

A record Riverside Stadium crowd of 30,218 saw Gascoigne, hit by a foot injury, defy the medical men and inspire his side to a comprehensive victory.

A loser on his first three Middlesbrough appearances, he helped set up Hamilton Ricard's 29th-minute opener and was behind most of the home side's more inventive attacks.

The blustery conditions made passing extremely difficult, but Gascoigne calmed Boro's nerves with his assurance and command of the ball.

Inevitably, Gazza was involved in the build-up for the opener.

The England man swooped upfield to the edge of the box before feeding Andy Townsend.

The Republic of Ireland schemer's 20-yarder looked harmless enough, but keeper Dean Kiely made a complete hash of it.

He could only knock the ball into the air with his right hand, and Ricard was left with a simple header to score from two yards.

Despite that priceless goal, Hamilton had a disappointing game and was replaced in the second half by Craig Hignett.

Branca should have put the issue beyond doubt on the hour.

The Italian blasted the ball straight at Kiely from just four yards out.

But that inexplicable miss was the signal for the Italian to find his shooting boots, and he made amends after 63 minutes.

Merson suddenly burst into the game with a glorious diagonal ball that released Branca in the inside-right position.

The striker strode purposefully into the box before blasting a powerful right-foot drive beyond Kiely from eight yards.

And it was the Branca-Merson combination that carved out a glorious third for the rampant reds.

Merson intelligently lofted the ball over the Bury defence, and Branca coolly killed the ball with his thigh before firing home with his left foot from ten yards.

Branca completed his well taken hat-trick in the 82nd minute with a simple tap-in from two yards after Hignett had rattled Kiely's right-hand post.

After claiming the match ball, the jubilant Italian declared: "I am going to take this ball back to my home in Italy and hang it on the wall.

"It's my first hat-trick in English football, but the most important thing was winning the match.

"After losing our last two league games, the most vital thing was that we won today.

"We must try to win our last five games. We are worried, but that is normal because it is so important that we get into the Premiership."

Boro assistant manager Viv Anderson declared himself satisfied with the club's seventh home win on the trot.

"I thought we did really well," he said. "I think we are capable of winning the last five games.

"There are bound to be some funny results on the run-in. If we get five victories we have a chance."

Before the game, Riverside boss Bryan Robson demanded six wins out of six from his flagging troops.

But it looks a pretty tall order with trips to Reading and Port Vale still to come.

There's nothing wrong with Boro's home form, but they badly need to launch an away-day revival at Reading tomorrow.

One away point from the last 15 simply isn't good enough.

Branca seemingly can't stop scoring at home, but how Boro could do with more of his goal magic on their travels.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 12, 1998
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