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Sunderland v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship

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Mowbray’s babes are shining bright at Sunderland

Against Michael Carrick’s visitors, our exciting group of players delivered when it mattered, and they demonstrated exactly why the club has shown so much faith in them, writes Phil West

Photo by Martin Swinney/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

A forced rivalry or just another encounter between two sides who see their future at English football’s top table?

Whatever the answer, this was another important step forward for Sunderland and if history shows that Middlesbrough generally get themselves up for this fixture to a greater degree than ourselves, that pattern was finally broken on Sunday.

We performed, they didn’t, and that made the difference.

It’s probably a safe bet that most of these players don’t know who Stan Anderson was, why Brian Clough is considered an iconic figure on Teesside and Wearside, or who scored for us when we travelled to the Riverside under Mick McCarthy in 2005.

However, as they headed down the tunnel following this immensely impressive victory, the sense of elation and relief rolling down from the stands couldn’t have been lost on them.

They’d delivered when it mattered, righted the wrongs of the corresponding fixture and sent 40,000 people home happy into the bargain. Many of these lads have no lifelong connection with Sunderland, but they’re learning exactly what it means to represent this club and to play in games of such magnitude.

Regardless of whether you consider this fixture a ‘derby’ or not, there’s no denying that it’s always a notable game on any calendar.

With that in mind, it was to our credit that we dominated the match to such an extent, and it’s no exaggeration to say that a more comprehensive scoreline wouldn’t have flattered us. OK, some wastefulness in front of goal was an irritation, but that can happen, and it didn't derail us.

There were excellent performances all over the park on Sunday but for me, four players- Edouard Michut, Trai Hume, Dan Neil and Aji Alese- really caught the eye.

Sunderland v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Introduced when Corry Evans went off injured early in the first half, Michut was sublime and if we’d been waiting for ‘the moment’ when he finally arrived in the red and white stripes, this was surely it.

The talent of the on-loan PSG midfielder has never been in question, but that’s always been tempered by whispers that he’s too small and too slight to make an impact in the Championship.

Games like this, however, are exactly what he needs, and the way in which he controlled matters in the middle of the park hinted that he’s getting attuned to the English game. Indeed, if he plays against Fulham on Saturday, he’ll doubtless be looking to make a similar impact.

Alongside him, Dan Neil’s upturn in form is now becoming one of the team’s most potent assets, and the Christmas and New Year period has been fruitful for the young midfielder.

In the midfield clashes, there’s more snap to his game nowadays, his physicality is improving, and his range of passing is helping to keep the red and white attack moving. Encouragingly, he's not shirking his defensive duties, either.

From midfield to defence and suffice it to say, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that we committed a blatant highway robbery when we lured Aji Alese from West Ham to Wearside last summer, and the consternation of Hammers fans at his departure was fully justified.

Sunderland v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

He marked his return to the starting eleven with a performance that was as dominant as it was relentless, with countless aerial battles won, a smattering of thumping challenges and several rampaging runs forward. Cramp appeared to bring his afternoon to an early end, but by that time, he’d made his point and then some.

Opposite Alese, Hume strode through the game with the sort of confidence that’s becoming a hallmark of his game.

Never afraid to carry the ball out from the back and more than capable of holding his own when going in the opposite direction, the former Linfield man is looking like an ever more shrewd purchase and is now surely our first choice in that position, even when Lynden Gooch returns from injury.

The bottom line is that for all of their exuberance and vigour, these lads are representing this club with pride. They’re thriving in an environment that’s allowing their talent to flourish, and they're showing that Sunderland AFC is now a club that nurtures potential, instead of hindering it.

The entire ethos of the club has been overhauled in recent times, and the exciting thing is that we’re only at the start of the process. If this is a glimpse into the future, it’s certainly looking bright.

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