Bubbling Boro Mackem Weep
BATTLING Boro Mackem Weep! An industrious show of Teesside steel. Top flight strugglers left derby dazed. The tabloid phrases and praises were spinning in a superlative charged night at the Stadium of Light as the Mogganaut ruined Marty's party.
Boro bossed the game. Seriously. Boro dominated pretty much throughout with a superb team display: they were well balanced, determined, organised, hard-working and dangerous on the break. Shaky Sunderland by contrast were sterile, one-dimensional, nervous, toothless and for long spells clueless.
A neutral looking in would be hard pushed to say which of those teams was in the Premier League. Or indeed, which of them was at home.
It seemed a strangely muted Mackem display. It was, with respect, their cup final. They have little else to play. At least we have promotion to aim at. On that showing a push for Europe is out of the question. In fact, on that showing they should be looking over their shoulders. For Sunderland a long hard slog beckons. They don't have an Earthly chance of winning anything this season and should have been giving it their best shot.
Or maybe that was their best shot. It was pretty much a first choice team packed with expensive internationals of supposedly far higher quality than Boro's collection of free-transfers, locals and lower league bargain buys that outplayed them in every department. If I was a Sunderland fan I would be deeply worried by that.
And worried too by the downbeat demeanour of Martin O'Neill after the game. He looked broken as he begrudgingly admitted Boro, just about, on balance, deserved to win and that sterile Sunderland just weren't quite good enough.
Boro though look like a rising team that can only get better. They are a side that are just starting to click, beginning to buzz and who are playing with a confident swagger.
Boro are now unbeaten in six. They have won five in a row. And five on the bounce on the road as well. Just think what it will be like when they can get a full strength side out!
They were superb. They had a simple enough game plan: to stifle and frustrate Sunderland, stop the supply line to their only real threat - Stephen Fletcher - and hit on the break. And it worked.
They set out in a 4321 shape (Mogga tactics card collectors will be delighted to secure such a rare beast) and applied it with a practised panache and passion.
Boro out-worked Sunderland in midfield, man-for-man and as a well drilled unit. It was functional and effective and ruthlessly applied. They closed and pressed and tackled with incredible industry and an energy that quickly wore Sunderland down.
Lee Cattermole, tipped by Martin O'Neill this week as a future England player when he signed his new deal, was completely overshadowed and outworked by Wearside 'reject' Grant Leadbitter.
Leadbitter and Bailey hit everything that moved to build a solid platform while Faris Haroun - finally hitting his best form again after a sluggish start to the season - charged around closing and crashing in a dynamic display of engine room physicality.
If Cattermole was quiet, another Boro old boy, Adam Johnson, was practically mute. He barely got a look in on the wing. The Academy product and Sessegnon on the other side got no joy down the flanks as they were neutralised early on by assertive Boro full-backs Justin Hoyte and the excellent George Friend. And when McClean came on towards the end in a bid to resuscitate a flagging side he too was quickly shackled.
And without the service to Fletcher, Sunderland had nothing to offer. Their only league scorer this season (except Newcastle oggie scorer Demba Ba, and they couldn't put him on) had one downward close range header that brought a routine diving low save from Jason Steele and Sessegnon sent one hopefull low effort flashing just wide from distance in the second half. And that was it.
Sunderland resorted to the O'Neill default and pumped long balls forward - he was jumping up and down and stamping in his technical area like Yosemite Sam, steam coming out of his ears as he jabbed and pointed indicating high, long, faster - despite diminishing returns. His idea of changing it tactically late on when they were chasing the game was to pump them slightly wider for his wingers to swing the high balls in from a slightly different angle.
As those balls came in Andre Bikey grew in stature by the minute until he was like and Easter Island statute dominating the landscape, headed high balls away for fun as puny opponents bounced off him.
Seb Hines did his share too until he went off injured then Friend slotted into the centre to take over heading duties and Stuart Parnaby went to left back and was immediately into the groove. After a slow start he has started to show signs of understated quality.
With Boro's defence in such fine form Sunderland never looked like scoring. It didn't stop the tension building but even in the frantic final few minutes they were woeful.
Their best effort late on came as keeper Westwood carried the ball forward then pumped a high ball forward that skidded through the box and at least forced Steele to scramble across and make a 'save.'
Bubbling Boro though looked a potent and positive presence throughout. They had a real cutting edge that repeatedly scythed through a brittle backline to get into dangerous positions. McDonald grazed the bar and Miller, Leadbitter, Haroun and Friend all had decent chances. Boro really should have had a goal or two more to seal it and settle nerves, but you can't have everything.
With Ishmael Miller getting fitter and sharper with every game Boro have a powerful punch up front, a handful in the box combining physicality with a burst of pace.
His shooting and reactions are still suspect. Twice balls came at him awkwardly in the box - one bounced off his shins and spun invitingly in front of him - only for his stingless shot to be weak and wide. But his presence is creating problems for defences, his surging runs are hard to stop and increasingly he is getting wide to turn provider: it was his neat ball in that set up McDonald to score.
And the two behind him had storming displays too. Emmanual Ledesma has hinted at a magical touch in flashes at times but at Sunderland he added work-rate too.
And McDonald was fantastic. He worked tireless and unselfishly, closing down and movement on the flank and dropping deep to help out at the back.
And instead of getting the ball and haring off on his own he had developed an eye for an incisive long range diagonal. Twice he sparked threatening raids with superb diagonals for Ledesma wide on the right.
His spell in the cold has brought him back red hot - and as a team player - and even without the goal he was a strong candidate for man of the match. Throw the potent streak into the mix and you have a player now at his best.
Arguably half-a-dozen players turned in their best displays of the season so far - Bikey, Friend, Leadbitter, Ledesma McDonald and Miller - but it was the terrific team display that mattered. And that was pure steel.
JUST a quick note: Boro fans may have been up in the Gods but that didn't give them the moral high-ground. The horrible chanting aimed at Lee Cattermole and his "dad" (incidentally, Catt's dad Barry was a Boro player himself as a youngster) was just sick. It was widespread, it was clearly audible and it was a step too far.
As Boro fans we have had to put up with years of vile taunting over the child abuse scandal at the hands of fans from three clubs and have rightly been irate at something that goes beyond banter and beyond the pale. To descend to that level surrenders our moral authority and will be used in the future to justify renewed hostility by idiots.