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OPINION: Arranging a friendly between Middlesbrough and Sunderland really is a terrible idea

James Nickels doesn’t agree with the decision to go ahead with a friendly against our A19 rivals Middlesbrough, and is worried it could lead to some unnecessary bad feeling amongst Sunderland supporters.

Lee Cattermole and Grant Leadbitter come together in a 2-2 draw when both sides were in the Premier League.

Count back a year - pre-season hopes were not exactly gleaming, but few fans expected another successive relegation into League One. A marquee friendly was arranged with Scottish giants Celtic, intended to be a celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the building of the Stadium of Light.

However, come the end of the day a 5-0 loss shattered much expectations for Simon Grayson’s side as 9,000 Celtic fans romped throughout Wearside looking for the egregious and unwelcome Tommy Robinson. Hardly a single word was uttered of the great celebration of the Stadium of Light’s birthday, but instead the whole friendly paraded the club’s main sponsor - Dafabet.

Advertising of the Celtic friendly plastered with the Dafabet logo, but no sign of the 20th anniversary of the SoL.
Sunderland AFC/Dafabet.

In my opinion Friday’s friendly with Middlesbrough has been somewhat of a farce from the beginning, with the airshow thankfully limiting the ability to hold the match at home - denying probably a similar number of Boro fans a day of celebration for the away side while the home fans’ lumbered.

Yet the game will still go ahead, but down the A19 at the Riverside Stadium.

Our recent record against Boro is nothing short of abysmal - we’ve won just four times in the last 19 matches between the two sides. Only a last minute Callum McManaman goal last time out denied the away side their sixth victory in a row against the Lads.

The current club hierarchy are fixing the many wrongs done by the old regime and have generally been responsible for injecting some much-needed optimism and togetherness back into the club - however this one decision seems all-too similar to one in which the Short regime would have lauded.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The only benefit is that playing Boro in a pre-season friendly finally puts to bed the notion that the “derby” is anything but. Only real derbies are sanctioned to be a mid-day kick-off in competitive games at best - never mind even considering facing off for a “friendly”.

Maybe the hierarchy - of course still in their infancy at the top of the club - likely do not understand Boro fans’ regard towards Sunderland. While we generally see them as just another team, this match is their massive derby. The reason for their almost impenetrable unbeaten streak is due to the fact their players simply want it more - they feed off their fans just as the Lads did in the six-in-a-row over Newcastle.

This match is likely to be of little intensity on the pitch - but off it they’ll treat it as a spectacle. Add in the Paddy McNair affair and there’s a little extra bite than usual. Many Sunderland fans have been angered by how McNair - or his agent - have treat the club since relegation and jumping ship at the first opportunity. But consider, just a week before the start of the season, a key player picks up an injury in a wholly unnecessary and unneeded game.

Middlesbrough FC

The game is seemingly a recipe for disaster and could temper expectations ahead of our opener against Charlton Athletic. Or, on the other hand, a victory could re-unite a unifying fan base even more and give the players huge impetus going into the season. Furthermore, it's a cheap and short trip against a side who will genuinely test the Lads

However, due to the heightened expectations, a good start is key. Sunderland (and the North-East as a whole, to be fair) is often cliched as a “hotbed” of football. But the passion seeps through every follower no matter their colours. But such passion can be a double-edged sword. In the last decade, Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough have all endured long winning and losing streaks at differing points. This is the burden and bonus of such passionate fans; eager to both celebrate and scrutinise every move made by every player on the pitch.

This was already evident in just the second pre-season game at Hartlepool. A poor showing at Darlington just four days earlier and a stagnant start at Victoria Park angered some fans in the away end, who began literally fighting with each other. The argument stemmed from booing one of our own players. Imagine if this is the case at Boro, and all the excellent, hard work throughout the off and pre-season could be swept up by anxiety.

Sunderland AFC

This good start is vital, as Tom Flanagan knows. He has been promoted out of League One on two occasions, and in his interview after immediately being unveiled as a Sunderland player mentioned that League One is “not like the Championship”, where “a point or two here or there gets you through”, before going on to claim that you “need to win week-in, week-out and pick up some steam”.

League One is much more open and less roadblocked than the Championship; the three relegated teams from two seasons ago went immediately back up again last season (Wigan, Blackburn and Rotherham).

To win the league - as many fans rightly expect - or merely gain promotion, teams need to get off on the right foot and unfortunately the friendly with Middlesbrough seems just way too much of a wildcard and a huge risk so close to the start of the season.

Do you agree with what James has had to say about the Middlesbrough friendly? Leave us a comment below with your thoughts on the matter.

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