A convincing midweek performance and victory over Watford was the ideal preparation for the weekend’s hotly contested Wear/Tees clash at the Stadium of Light.
Both sides were entering the latest episode of the fierce rivalry (albeit one that’s not a ‘derby’) in fine fettle: Middlesbrough on the back of four consecutive wins; Sunderland after winning four of our last five.
Goals were almost certainly on the menu, as the two sides had amassed a combined total of twenty in their last five league games, and it was safe to assume that both teams would be looking to continue in the same vein.
When the team news filtered through on our social media feeds, Alex Pritchard was the one glaring absence, with Tony Mowbray confirming in Friday’s pre-match press conference that he wouldn’t be taking any risks as far as the influential attacker’s injury was concerned.
Elsewhere, Trai Hume and Niall Huggins switched over again, with Hume returning to his usual position on the right side of defence.
With the Stadium of Light close to being sold out and the visitors bringing 2,500 fans, the stage was set for what was possibly going to be another enthralling clash.
Middlesbrough looked arguably the better side in the opening exchanges, although we gradually asserted greater authority and began to work ourselves into the game.
A dazzling run by Patrick Roberts after cutting in from the right was like watching an exact replica of Huggins’ gorgeous individual effort on Wednesday night, but in this case, Roberts could only find the outstretched leg of Seny Dieng.
Denied what would’ve been a fabulous solo goal, we looked increasingly confident.
Boro, meanwhile, had a near miss of their own, with Josh Coburn’s close range tap in heroically blocked by Dan Ballard who, on a forgettable afternoon for those in red and white, was a diamond in the rough.
A deflated Huggins trudged off on the half hour mark after picking up an injury and was replaced by Jenson Seelt.
There was very little to separate the two teams going into the break, although on the balance of play, perhaps we were marginally the better side.
However, all hope seemed lost when Hume was seemingly fouled as he tracked back to prevent a Middlesbrough counter attack.
After referee Jarred Gillett was told by an already carded Dan Neil that it was ‘a f***ing foul’, Gillett produced another yellow, sending an incandescent and perplexed Neil off on the stroke of half time.
We’ve become accustomed to seeing a Boss gilet in the Stadium of Light’s technical area in recent months, but the Gillett in the middle on Saturday was far from boss and single-handedly ruined a competitive fixture.
The card-happy referee had reportedly told the two managers prior to the game that he would officiate the match with empathy, but that thoughtful sentiment only seemed to apply to the away side.
It was a farcical decision that damaged any chance of getting a result, and would subsequently cost us the game.
The dismal refereeing display continued in the second half, as both Sam Greenwood and Isaiah Jones should’ve seen red but once again, Gillett was seemingly blinded by his one-sidedness.
Naturally, we lost our shape after the sending off and Boro quickly seized control through the extra man advantage they’d been so unjustly gifted.
The ‘curse of the former player’ in Greenwood came into play to break the deadlock, before the visitors netted a further three times to record their biggest ever win away at Sunderland.
Another game, and one which had hung in the balance until the sending off, was marred by another controversial judgment from another incompetent referee.
Ultimately, not too much can be taken from this result from a Sunderland perspective, other than the sense of an overwhelming injustice being served up and leaving a bitter taste in the mouth.
After last week’s debacle at Tottenham, it’s even more obvious that more needs to be done when it comes to inconsistent and hideously reprehensible officiating.
On a slightly more amusing note, Roker Report’s own Gav Henderson was sitting behind two lads who were none the wiser about Neil’s sending off, and were subsequently left bewildered at our apparently inexplicable second half capitulation!