EMBATTLED Middlesbrough boss Bryan Robson yesterday moved to head-off any hint of a players' revolt when he issued a call for unity at a crisis meeting with his first-team squad.

Boro have denied suggestions that out-of-favour duo Hamilton Ricard and Robbie Stockdale are ready to turn up the heat on Robson by joining Gianluca Festa in demanding a transfer.

Colombian striker Ricard was axed for Saturday's disastrous 3-0 home defeat by Leicester, Boro's seventh straight loss and one which leaves them firmly entrenched in the Premiership's bottom three.

Ricard, who joined Boro in a £2m move from Deportivo Cali in March 1998, has been their top scorer in the last two seasons with 18 and 14 goals.

However, having managed only three this season - all of which came in the Worthington Cup win at Third Division Macclesfield - Ricard couldn't even command a place on the bench for the Leicester clash, after Robson said on the eve of the game: "Hamilton hasn't been doing it for us.''

Right-back Stockdale, 20, has been on loan at Sheffield Wednesday after failing to figure in the Boro first team this season.

But Robson explained: "Robbie went to Sheffield Wednesday because Curtis Fleming looks as fit as he has ever been since I've been at the club, and Robbie was behind him.

"I felt at this stage of his development, it was more important for Robbie to play League football instead of just playing in our reserves.''

Paul Ince, meanwhile, is in a desperate race to be fit for Saturday's critical home game against bottom club Bradford.

The Boro skipper has been out for a month after surgery for an alarming knee infection and didn't train yesterday.

Defeat against Bradford, who have confirmed Jim Jefferies as their new manager, could spell the end for Robson.

Boro assistant boss Viv Anderson yesterday admitted: "Since we've been at the club, I think it's our most crucial game. People are talking about it being a six-pointer and we were talking about that ourselves today.

"Even if we only keep a clean sheet, we can go from there. It's all about confidence more than anything.''

Robson, booed by fans at the Leicester game, yesterday received a message of support from the chairman of the official supporters' club.

David Buckton claimed Robson remains the man best qualified to restore the Teessiders' fortunes.

Buckton said: "The team as a whole has not performed well this season, for whatever reason.

"Obviously the manager has got to take responsibility and he does, which has put him under a lot of pressure.

"But there have been a few injuries and I think the problem is that there has not been enough time for everybody to play together and to find each other's strengths and weaknesses.

"I think Bryan Robson still has a lot to do and I don't want to see him fail.

"He wants to be here and winning things because he is ambitious like the club, and we don't want to see him under this sort of pressure. We want to see the club doing well.

"He has bought and sold quite well since he has been here and has made money on most of the players he has sold on.

"Several new players have come in this season and some have come good and some haven't.

"It is not over yet and there is still a long way to go, but there is obviously a lot of work to do.''

However, Buckton did admit that if results do not improve the Boro board could be forced to make a change. "It can't go on forever and there has got to be a time when a decision has got to be made,'' he said.

"They could bring somebody in to help out and there is an element of supporters who would want to see a change, but again there are those who think that Bryan Robson is the man for the job.

"I want to see him stay and succeed, as a lot of people do, and I think he can.

"But time must be running out. It is really down to the club and the chairman to decide how our future is determined.''

Boro legend John Hickton believes Robson's detractors are forgetting the success he has brought to the club.

"Boro have reached three cup finals since Robson took over,'' said Hickton.

"In my eyes, that's fantastic. I'd have given my right arm to get into a cup final.

"We need everybody to stick together and only then will we see light at the end of the tunnel.

"Robbo's a battler but it needs everybody, the fans, the management and the players to stick together.

"In any case, who are we going to replace him with? You have got these top-class players because of Robbo.''

l Boro's reserve game against Liverpool at St. Helens was postponed last night because of a waterlogged pitch.