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Sunderland vs Middlesbrough Sky Bet Championship

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Beating Boro would boost Beale’s Sunderland tenure

“Our record against the Teessiders is frankly lamentable, and as Beale looks for momentum, knocking over Michael Carrick’s team at the Riverside would be a huge fillip,” writes Phil West.

Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It’s fair to say that as a challenging 2023/2024 season has unfolded, Sunderland have been on the wrong end of some brutal results at the Stadium of Light.

The 0-3 reverse to Coventry City in Michael Beale’s first game at the helm was a horrible way for the new head coach to begin his spell in charge, whilst the defeats to Hull City and Huddersfield, during which we barely fired a shot in anger, were played out in soulless atmospheres where belief was in worryingly short supply.

However, none of these losses really compare to the embarrassment of suffering a comprehensive hammering at home to Middlesbrough, a game during which Dan Neil was sent off as Jarrod Gillett decided to turn the pitch into his own personal stage, and Michael Carrick’s side duly ran riot as we folded in alarmingly rapid fashion.

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

It was a painful day; the kind of loss that lives long in the memory, and as we prepare for the return fixture in front of the Sky Sports cameras this weekend, it feels easy enough to boil it down to a simple case of getting our own back on a fellow playoff hopeful.

It’s fair to say that generally speaking, our neighbours from down the A19 take this game far more seriously than ourselves. They need no extra motivation to get themselves up for it and any sort of victory is considered a real feather in the cap.

Over the years, Middlesbrough’s players and managers have also fostered an annoying if admirable habit of adopting the same attitude, and enduring images from our trips to the Riverside Stadium and Ayresome Park, pre-1995, have often been few and far between.

It may be seventeen years since Stewart Downing turned Greg Halford inside out and then outside in before the late and much-missed Liam Miller bailed us out with a dipping volley to make it 2-2 when Roy Keane took the Lads to Teesside, but an absolutely abysmal record of three wins from thirty eight visits to Middlesbrough since 1954 shows exactly how heavily the weight of history is against us.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Middlesbrough v Sunderland - Riverside Stadium Photo by Anna Gowthorpe - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

However, this weekend can be different.

After we saw off an admittedly limited Stoke City to ease the pressure on Michael Beale after a troubled week, the trip to Teesside to face the recently defeated League Cup semi-finalists, a team currently in indifferent league form, is a different kettle of fish entirely.

Simply put, we owe them one.

Banking the three points would be hugely significant and if our fans are tempted to dismiss the game with the usual ‘small town in Yorkshire’ jibes, the players can afford no such luxury.

This game needs to be taken extremely seriously for a multitude of reasons, chief among them is the fact that the race for the top six is getting tighter with every game we play and there are now six or seven teams eyeing up what realistically feels like two playoff spots.

Local lad Hayden Hackney, goalscoring hero in their League Cup semi-final first leg against Chelsea, will be determined to have his say, and we simply have to be prepared to match their ferocity with our own.

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

Last season’s trip to the Riverside, during which we lost Ross Stewart to injury before kick off and the raucous atmosphere seemed to spook our players en route to defeat, wasn’t a pleasant experience, but hopefully this time we can navigate our way through it, compete with Carrick’s side from the outset, and show that we’ve learned from it.

Neil will be fired up for this one, as his teammates should also be, and if Beale wasn’t quite able to comprehend the magnitude of the Wear-Tyne derby, perhaps he’ll find this game more to his liking, not least because a victory would give his fledgling Sunderland tenure a much-needed shot in the arm.

Some of our most revered managers have failed to steer us to away victories over Middlesbrough, and although the current incumbent still has some way to go to win everyone over, if he can succeed where so many others have failed, it’ll go a long way towards building bridges with those who may still be smarting from his clumsy pre-Stoke comments.

Sunderland v Stoke City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Reassuringly for Beale, his selection options are plentiful. We’ve added defensive depth in the shape of Norwegian prospect Leo Hjelde, and any further transfers pending, we should head into the game in good stead.

Jenson Seelt, fresh from another impressive outing at the weekend, ought to retain his place and the exciting if previously erratic Abdoullah Ba seems to be finding the sort of performance levels that merit an extended run in the team.

Up front, Nazariy Rusyn’s two-goal salvo in midweek (the result of some incisive and well-judged passes, who knew?) should probably nudge him ahead of Mason Burstow for a starting role, and hopefully we can continue to develop a style of play that can really play to the Ukrainian’s strengths.

Whether you class it as a derby or not, this is an important game in both clubs’ respective seasons.

History suggests that our chances of victory aren’t great, and Boro will understand that too, but what better way for Beale and the Lads to overcome a major hurdle, atone for the home loss last autumn, and clock up another crucial victory in the process?

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