The tripartite nature of footballing rivalry in the north-east of England means that this afternoons FA Cup Fourth Round match between Sunderland and Middlesbrough has a hint of being a local derby about it without fully appearing to be the real thing.
Still, supporters of both of these clubs have cause to give a wry smile this afternoon. Newcastle United, the third part of this particular triumvirate, made a long journey south to play Brighton & Hove Albion yesterday and returned chastened after a single goal defeat which means that the winners of this tie will be the regions final representative in this years competition, at the last sixteen stage. A hint of tension has, however, been brought to proceedings by Sunderland’s somewhat odd decision to only allocate Middlesbrough 3,000 tickets for what has been described as “health & safety reasons.”
In addition to this, both of the clubs playing this afternoon have cause to be looking forward with greater optimism than of late. Sunderland have stabilised under new manager Martin O’Neill. It’s twenty years since they last managed to get to an FA Cup final and almost twice that long since Ian Porterfield and Jim Montgomery upset the Leeds United apple-cart at Wembley. A run to the latter stages of this competition this year would be a reasonable barometer of the speedy progress made under their new manager. Middlesbrough have been similarly revitalized under Tony Mowbray after several seasons in the relative wilderness since relegation from the Premier League. To return there remains Mowbray’s principle aim, but a decent run in the cup can build confidence and create a buzz of interest around a club that has struggled to regularly fill its ground for league matches in recent times.
Teesside and Wearside have been as shaped as anywhere else by the increasing cosmopolitanism of professional football in recent years, but it is a player with a distinctly British name that gives Middlesbrough a surprise lead after fifteen minutes. Barry Robson’s shot is as unstoppable as they come, a low volley which skids and fizzes past the Sunderland goalkeeper Mignolet and into the net. It’s a goal that raises Sunderland from a ponderous opening, and they have a goal controversially disallowed after just over half an hour has been played. Craig Gardner controls the ball quite clearly with his arm, and hollow, angled shot beats Danny Coyne, only to be ruled out for an incorrectly called offside flag against Connor Wickham, who is loitering on the edge of the Middlesbrough six yard area. The right conclusion, then, but for the wrong reason.
As half-time approaches, Middlesbrough are handed a golden opportunity to double their advantage. Jutkiewicz finds himself in space in the Middlesbrough left, and his low shot is beaten away by Mignolet, only to fall to Haroun, but the Middlesbrough player is off balance and his attempt at a shot corkscrews back across the face of goal to a somewhat surprised looking Jutkiewicz, whose second attempt drifts across the face of goal and wide. The half-time whistle comes with the nagging feeling that Middlesbrough could yet come to regret spurning that opportunity. Sunderland are likely to continue to press in the second half – a twogoal cushion would have been very handy indeed.
The second half continues the spritely pace with which the first ended, but Sunderland’s equalising goal comes with a swift break at what might have been an inopportune time for them. They have been temporarily reduced to ten players after a painful looking fall by Wes Brown. Despite this disadvantage, they break swiftly, James McClean’s low pass finds Fraizer Campbell and Campbell, who came on at half-time for his first appearance for the club after almost a year and a half out through injury, sweeps the ball past Coyne to bring the Premier League side level.
Still, though, the football on display is scrappy and characterised by endeavour rather than any great distinction. With ten minutes to play, Coyne leaves the field for Middlesbrough with an injury to be replaced by the England under-nineteen goalkeeper Connor Campbell, who is twenty years Coyne’s junior, and within a couple of minutes he has a cross turned away from him by a panicked defender. This, however, us a match that feels as if it is petering out rather than building towards the sort of crescendo managed at Anfield yesterday lunchtime, although McClean does bring The Stadium Of Light to its feet with a low shot in stoppage time that crashes into the side-netting.
A draw is a fair result, although not one that either side will be particularly happy with. Sunderland seemed a little off-colour at times, particularly in comparison with their recent Premier League form. Middlesbrough, meanwhile, can take a degree of satisfaction from a job reasonably well done, although there may be something of a feeling of disappointment at having let the lead slip, and extra fixtures are hardly desirable for a team chasing promotion from a forty-six match season. We will find out whether they have missed out on their window of opportunity once and for all when the two sides meet again at The Riverside Stadium the week after next.
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