Sunderland made the short trip down the A19 to take on local rivals Middlesbrough in the first league Tees-Wear derby of the season – and the occasion didn’t fail to live up to expectations with goals, screamers, upsets and a barney on the pitch.
That particular game is actually one of my favourite memories as a Sunderland supporter, mainly for the manner in which it ended.
The trip down on the bus was short, but exciting. We were rounded up at Wynyard, as is always the case when we take on the Smoggies, before being led into the Riverside and wandering into what can only be described as a free-for-all. Readers who have ever been at a Boro v Sunderland game at The Riverside will probably recall the fact the police did absolutely nothing to keep fans apart in those days, so there was always trouble.
On the pitch, however, we were confident. Keano loved a big occasion and this was arguably the first big occasion of the season. Going into the game we had dispatched of Reading at the Stadium of Light, with new signing Kenwyne Jones getting off the mark, and were sat in 14th place.
It was early, but the lads were well up for it – as they should have been.
SUNDERLAND: Craig Gordon, Greg Halford, Danny Collins, Paul McShane, Danny Higginbotham, Dickson Etuhu, Grant Leadbitter, Dwight Yorke, Ross Wallace, Michael Chopra, Kenwyne Jones. SUBS: Darren Ward, Ian Harte, Liam Miller, Anthony Stokes, Roy O’Donovan.
On the other side of the pitch stood a Sunderland hero making his first appearance against the side with whom he made his name – Julio Arca.
Julio, who had left the club following our relegation to the Championship in 2006, lined up for Boro in midfield alongside former SAFC winger Stewart Downing.
On their bench was 19-year old Lee Cattermole, who would, of course, go on to captain Sunderland just a few years later. Readers may recall that when he eventually got on the pitch, Cattermole came to blows with future teammate – and future Boro skipper – Leadbitter, resulting in a melee on the pitch that saw both men carded for their part in it.
The Lads started the game in the best possible fashion with an early goal.
Grant Leadbitter charged through the centre of the park before laying the ball out wide to Michael Chopra, whose tame attempt on goal hit Leadbitter rather fortunately on the way through, putting the young midfielder in on goal.
Taking full advantage of the good fortune, Leadbitter calmly slotted the ball beyond Mark Schwarzer to give the Lads the lead after just 75 seconds.
The lead didn’t last long, though, and the equaliser came through the most typical of sources.
Having laid a lovely pass out wide to Gary O’Neil, Julio Arca continued his run towards the back post unmarked and nodded the ball powerfully at Craig Gordon and into the bottom corner. Julio, not wanting to appear disrespectful to his former club, refused to celebrate what was in all honesty a fantastic goal.
The game was neck and neck going into the break, though after half-time it was Boro who emerged with more gusto to their game. The constant threat of Stewart Downing on the wing, cutting inside and giving Greg Halford real problems, eventually paid off for the home side, and he became the second former Sunderland player to get on the scoresheet against their old side on the afternoon.
Having come inside to collect the ball, creating some distance between himself and Halford, Downing took full advantage of the space afforded to him and lashed an unstoppable strike into Gordon’s left-hand corner from around 30 yards out to put Middlesbrough ahead for the first time in the game.
Disaster for Sunderland but, as was often the case with Keano’s side, they refused to give up.
Having thrown on all three subs to try and get something out of the game before the clock ran down, Keane’s men snatched an equaliser with a minute of normal time to spare in the most dramatic of fashions.
After Boro failed to properly clear a long punt forward, Miller latched on to the loose ball, wriggled free from the chasing pack of Boro players, and lashed an unbelievable left-footed half volley into the top corner to send the Sunderland fans behind the goal into absolute delirium.
It was to be the Irishman’s crowning moment as a Sunderland player, stealing a point for his side at the home of one of their closest regional rivals.
The game finished 2-2 – a fair result, but considering the manner in which the game finished, one that Sunderland would surely take all the bragging rights from.
Middlesbrough manager Gareth Southgate:
We’ve come so close but I don’t want anyone walking out with their heads down – I’m proud of them. They scrapped and battled and stood up to the fight and they have given me absolutely everything.
We’re down because we felt we were that close to winning the game.
Anything that could have gone wrong did.
Sunderland manager Roy Keane:
I didn’t enjoy it apart from the last few minutes.
We never got control of the game. As soon as we scored the first goal we never got possession. We stood back and maybe we lacked a bit of Premier League experience.
We weren’t creating chances or gambling enough but they had that desire to get something. Every point is going to be vital.