Sigh…so it’s that time of year again where we all feel obliged to offer an opinion on whether or not Sunderland vs a team based 30 miles south of us is a derby.
Whatever the answer, Middlesbrough certainly have the upper hand in this fixture over recent years and haven’t tasted defeat in a Wear-Tees meeting since 2012.
To find a Sunderland league victory over the Teessiders you have to go back even further to 2008, where a Stewart Downing penalty miss preceded a late Michael Chopra double to seal the three points.
Back then, our record in this fixture wasn’t too bad, in the 2005-2006 season we amassed a fifth of our meagre 15 points total in a 2-0 win at the Riverside with Tommy Miller and Julio Arca both getting on the scoresheet.
Our most significant clash with ‘Boro in recent times came in April 2008 at the Stadium of Light. The equation was simple, if we won, we had a chance of being mathematically safe from relegation.
When you look back at this now, it perhaps doesn’t have the same gravitas, after all almost every one of our ten successive seasons in the Premier League were due to ‘great escapes’, but in 2008, Sunderland and the Premier League were more ships in the night than regular bed fellows.
In our most recent Premier League campaigns prior to 2007-2008 we had won seven times in 76 attempts and across the two seasons picked up a combined total of 34 points, a total that would have been insufficient to stay up in either 2002-03 or 2005-06.
In 05-06 only a victory over Fulham in our final home game prevented us from the embarrassment of going a whole league campaign without winning at home, and was only four days away from being a whole calendar year after our previous home win, a 1-0 win over Stoke on May 8, 2005. At least we haven’t gone that long without a home win since then…oh, never mind.
To summarise, staying in the Premier League was an absolutely massive deal and another relegation would extinguish the fire that Roy Keane has lit under the City of Sunderland.
Now that depressing history lesson is over, let’s take a look back at that game against Sunday’s opponents.
Sunderland went into the match on the back of a 2-0 defeat to Newcastle, which in all honesty we knew we’d lost when Jonny Evans was a late injury casualty and was replaced by Paul McShane.
This, coupled with a 2-1 home reversal to Manchester City had increased anxiety on Wearside, but we had still secured three wins the previous five matches with successive wins over Aston Villa, West Ham and Fulham preceding the losses to City and the Mags.
Boro had only won one of their previous five games, with their solitary win coming against Premier League whipping boys, Derby County.
A near sellout crowd of 45,059 were treated to a pulsating start as Tuncay Şanlı exploited a gaping hole in the Sunderland backline and fired the ball into the bottom corner beyond Craig Gordon after just four minutes.
Sunderland nearly levelled things up straight from the kick off, as Kenwyne Jones’ touch found Michael Chopra 12 yards out, but a last ditch block by Andrew Taylor denied the striker.
From the resulting corner, the lads levelled things up, Brad Jones’ punch failed to clear the danger and the ball eventually found its way out to Danny Collins, who hung an inviting cross to the back post for Danny Higginbotham to impressively head home.
Chopra almost made it 2-1 after getting on the end of a long ball from Nyron Nosworthy, but his chip landed just outside the width of the goal.
He wasn’t to be denied for too long however, as he gave Sunderland the lead on the stroke of half time.
Chopra again beat the offside trap and after a fortunate deflection off David Wheater fell kindly for the striker he fired the ball off the underside of the bar and into the side of the ‘Boro net to give the lads the advantage.
Sunderland looked to add to their lead after the break and some brave goalkeeping from Brad Jones prevented his namesake Kenwyne from getting on the scoresheet.
The ‘Boro goalkeeper also produced an excellent save after Dean Whitehead won the ball back for Sunderland deep inside the Middlesbrough half and flashed the ball across the face of goal, which Chopra managed to get on the end of, but Jones saved well from point blank range.
At the other end, Craig Gordon was called into action when he produced a fine one vs one save from a close range Stewart Downing effort.
Just 17 minutes from time it looked as though Sunderland’s missed chances would come back to haunt them, when Julio Arca’s mishit shot trickled into the path of Alfonso Alves who managed to turn the ball beyond the despairing dive of Gordon and Higginbotham was unable to prevent the ball crossing the line.
Just as it looked as though Sunderland would have to settle for a point, they forced a corner which Grant Leadbitter whipped inside the visitors six yard box for Daryl Murphy to head off the underside of the bar and over the line.
The goal was ultimately given to Emmanuel Pogatetz but regardless of who got the final touch, it sparked scenes of utter jubilation in the Sunderland end and confirmed that we would be playing back to back seasons of Premier League football for the first time since 2003.
Sunderland fans had become accustomed to late winners throughout that season, of our 11 victories, four of them came as a direct result of goals scored in stoppage time.
It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t free flowing but this was a team built in our managers’ image and we had a team to be proud of.
Sunderland: Gordon, Whitehead, Nosworthy, Higginbotham, Collins, Edwards (Leadbitter 60), Reid, Miller, Richardson, Chopra (Murphy 85), Jones. Subs Not Used: Fulop, Harte, Prica.
Goals: Higginbotham 6, Chopra 45, Pogatetz Og 90.