Rarely will a match discussed so intently and anticipated for so long be
forgotten so quickly. Few derbies can rival that of
There was a sending-off and as much endeavour as you could possibly want from a derby, but Newcastle, who took an early lead through Yohan Cabaye, found it far too simple to repel Sunderland’s attacking threat, even after Cheick Tioté’s red card for a late tackle on Steven Fletcher.
Indeed, Newcastle were only denied by an own goal five minutes from time, the ball going into their net off the face of Demba Ba. They left with far more reason to be optimistic about what the future holds than their hosts. For perhaps the first time this season, Newcastle looked like the same unit that finished fifth last term.
A share of the points did little for either side’s league position in the short term and while Sunderland celebrated their late equaliser with gusto, the overwhelming emotion on Wearside was relief.
Despite playing with an extra man for more than an hour, they left it late to salvage a draw from a game that appeared to be slipping agonisingly away from them once again.
Sunderland have beaten their local rivals just once at home in 32 years and while a draw spared their manager Martin O’Neill the stress and strain of explaining another defeat, his team’s performance was about as convincing as a Coalition minister’s excuses for another public-relations faux pas.
Had he lost this match, O’Neill would have been dealing with the first full-blown crisis of his Sunderland reign, just 10 months after he replaced Steve Bruce at the Stadium of Light.
Sunderland have won just one of their past 15 league matches, yet they remain only two points behind Newcastle with a game in hand. It has not been a disastrous start for either club, but neither has it been a good one.
For the time being, these fiercest of rivals are stuck together in a mid-table pack, with Newcastle looking the more likely to emerge and push themselves up the table.
For 65 minutes Alan Pardew’s side played with 10 men, and for 60 of them they did so comfortably, happy to defend the lead that Cabaye had provided.
A mistake by Danny Rose, playing for the first time since he was subjected to horrific racist abuse in Serbia with the England Under-21s last week, gifted Hatem Ben Arfa possession.
He fed the ball to Shola Ameobi, whose shot was saved by Simon Mignolet, only for Cabaye to sweep in the rebound.
Newcastle looked the better team. Sunderland looked anxious, even after Tioté was shown a straight red card, his boot connecting with Fletcher’s shin rather than the ball as he fought for possession.
A yellow card would have been a better one for referee Martin Atkinson to show in the context of the game, but by the letter of the law he probably did not have any other choice.
Fletcher’s screams of pain no doubt helped him make his mind up and the incident once more proved that foreign players are not the only ones who make a meal of a hefty challenge.
Sunderland still struggled to create anything from open play, Adam Johnson’s curling shot falling just wide before a long-range free-kick from Craig Gardner fizzed past the post.
In the second half, Sunderland travelled down a one-way street with a fluorescent yellow no-entry sign at the end of it.
Attack after attack was launched, only to come to a shuddering halt on the edge of the area where Newcastle’s defence was impeccably organised by their captain, Fabricio Coloccini.
The centre-back has been sorely missed during his injury lay-off and his recovery from a niggling hamstring strain could not have been better timed.
From his presence alone, those around him looked more assured, more confident, more certain of their jobs. On the rare occasions that Sunderland did appear to have prised open the two banks of four Newcastle lined up, it was Coloccini who snuffed out any danger.
Sunderland were worryingly devoid of ideas in the final third, their two wingers, Johnson and James McClean, largely anonymous no matter how many times they swapped flanks.
As for Stéphane Sessègnon, the reason for his loss of form and confidence is a mystery which O’Neill desperately needs to solve.
Newcastle appeared to be heading for another famous victory on Wearside only for Coloccini, suffering cramp, to make way for Steven Taylor. Taylor was the target of some toxic “we wish you were dead” chants following his mocking pre-match comments about the strength of Sunderland’s squad and his arrival seemed to result in the defence losing their focus and conceding an equaliser.
Larsson’s free-kick was a good one, dipping and curling as it came out of the sky, but John O’Shea’s header was going wide, only to hit Ba in the face and wrong-foot the Newcastle goalkeeper Tim Krul. It was a fortunate deflection that secured a lucky escape.