Half a century since Sunderland’s first-ever relegation in 1958, the aim in this game against Middlesbrough was to ensure a similar fate was not going to occur. Sunderland claimed the victory in dramatic fashion, but they certainly had to sweat for it.
We came into this game on the back of a few poor results, none more so than the Tyne-Wear derby the week previous where Roy Keane’s men barely laid a glove on their opponents.
In the lead-up to this one, the fans were not happy, the Black Cats had turned in an insipid first-half display to allow the Magpies to wrap up the points long before they finally found their feet.
Much of the debate had centred around Roy Keane’s decision to play Kenwyne Jones as a lone striker and pack his midfield against the Mags, partially in an attempt to protect an injury-afflicted defence after Phil Bardsley and Johnny Evans were ruled out prior to kick-off.
It was different for the ‘Boro game. Sunderland lined up in a positive manner with Michael Chopra starting with Kenwyne Jones up top and Kieran Richardson starting after being a sub at St James Park.
Yet Sunderland’s defensive vulnerability was exposed once again. Middlesbrough smelt blood, the defence was already parting like the red sea, and they got their early goal. Tuncay Sanli and Alfonso Alves were a threat all game; Alves split the Sunderland defenders with a ball straight down the middle to the Turk, who latched onto it and slid it past Craig Gordon.
It appeared to be just the tonic to wake Sunderland up who were not behind for long. Just over 90 seconds later, they had their equaliser; the two Dannys linked up for the goal, Collins crossed for Higginbotham to score emphatically from a corner. It was as accurate as can be right into the top corner and Sunderland were level.
This appeared to settle the home side and in a topsy turvy encounter, they began to get on top. Michael Chopra was playing like a man with a point to prove. He was engaged in a constant battle with Boro defender David Wheater, who was probably lucky to avoid a red card when he left Chopra with a bloody nose from a stray elbow.
Against the run of play somewhat, Tuncay might have helped himself to a second goal when he met Stewart Downing’s 27th-minute cross with a downward header, but his effort flew agonisingly wide of the post with Gordon looking on with anguish.
However, Chopra came up with the perfect reply when, in injury time of the first half, he ran on to Liam Miller’s through-ball, and having skipped past Wheater with the help of a ricochet blasted a left-foot shot home off the underside of the bar.
It is what he deserved for a half personified by perseverance and determination.
The second half began just as excitingly, with chances and incidents aplenty. Kenwyne Jones was leading the line incredibly well, his pace and aerial ability were causing all sorts of issues for Gareth Southgate's men.
He may have increased the lead just after half time with a great burst of pace that sent him clear but he possibly overplayed the ball somewhat which made the save a little easier for ‘Boro goalkeeper Brad Jones.
Chopra might have done better when he fired high over after running on to Carlos Edwards’ 51st-minute pass, and a harsh offside flag robbed him of another chance to test Jones four minutes later.
The frantic and frenetic pace at which the game was played was summarised by Jones and Pogatetz both needed treatment for cuts after a clash of heads as the battle continued at a rapid pace.
Chopra, who could have had a hat trick, went close with another chance before ‘Boro got the equaliser which their pressure deserved. Ex-Sunderland man Julio Arca’s deflected shot ran to Alves, who did not make the cleanest of contacts but got enough on the ball to slide it past the keeper and just inside the far post.
The game looked like it was petering out for a draw, a result that neither team would have disputed. However, Daryl Murphy had other ideas.
In the 95th minute, Grant Leadbitter sent a corner in, and Murphy, standing at the near post, jumped like a salmon out of water to glance the header over Brad Jones who was lost in the melee of players. The ball sailed into the net and ensured Murphy’s name would be in the history books and, even more important, that Sunderland secured safety in the Premier League.
Post-match, Roy Keane depicted an extremely relieved man when he said:
It was a cracking game, which summed up our season. We’ve scored great goals this season and with the players we have we’ll always be likely to score late on.
We’ve had many setbacks - we showed the desire needed here today and you always get your rewards in football.
Sunderland 3-2 Middlesbrough
Sunderland: Gordon, Whitehead, Nosworthy, Higginbotham, Collins, Edwards (Leadbitter 60), Reid, Miller, Richardson, Chopra (Murphy 85), Jones. Subs Not Used: Fulop, Harte, Prica.
Booked: Richardson, Chopra, Whitehead.
Goals: Higginbotham 6, Chopra 45, Murphy, 90.
Middlesbrough: Jones, Young, Wheater, Pogatetz, Taylor, Cattermole (Rochemback 57), Boateng, Arca, Downing, Alves, Sanli. Subs Not Used: Turnbull, Shawky, Johnson, Grounds.
Booked: Wheater, Pogatetz.
Goals: Sanli 4, Alves 73.
Ref: Steve Bennett