AS THE referee, Graham Barber, left the field, several stewards formed a phalanx around him. Both sets of supporters bayed disapproval that strayed beyond the abuse that passes for the norm these days and the impression was that the guards were not there for show. These same people, it should be noted, had applauded the players off seconds before.
Yet who was to blame for this distasteful match that included a sending- off and nine other cautions? Barber, who had officiated without a trace of favour, or the players who had dived, conned, kicked and protested their way to parity? Some games are close to impossible to referee and this was one of them.
Indeed, if you had to quibble at Barber, it was due to his leniency, because he could have sent off more players than Chris Makin, who disappeared for two bookable offences after 31 minutes. Even that will be addressed if the Football Association urges the referee to consider video evidence before he makes his report.
That will almost certainly happen because Brian Deane elbowed Paul Butler in the face after 14 minutes and set a precedent for the rest of an unsavoury afternoon. Barber had his back to the incident, the linesman was unsighted, but the Match of the Day cameras caught it from three angles.
Deane is likely to face punishment akin to Matt Elliott's one-match suspension for pole-axeing Michael Owen but by rights he deserves more. Not only did he act off the ball, he set a tone whereby individuals abandoned the rule of law and looked for their own retribution. Every decision was greeted with snarling dissent and on three occasions players had to be pulled apart from a fracas.
Am I being over-sanctimonious? Was this just common fare for derbies? Well, Bryan Robson and Peter Reid, who have swapped bruises in Manchester and Merseyside versions and who kicked lumps out of each other in the 1980s and early 90s, were both unhappy that the game became more of an ill-tempered battle than a game of football.
Robson spoke of the need to ally composure to passion but it was Reid, who has seen three players dismissed in away matches this season and whose attempt to gain a place in Europe will be undermined by suspensions in the near future, who was most disgruntled.
"I don't think there was much football played," he said, grumpily reflecting on a lost chance to overtake Leeds, no matter how temporarily.
"I was disappointed with my team and the way they lost their discipline. The referee has a difficult job and sometimes they miss things but you can't afford to lose your composure because it causes a problem. And I don't like problems."
The players, of course, saw it differently. Sunderland's Kevin Ball described it as "great, exactly what I'd expect from a derby", while Boro's Colin Cooper contentedly reflected that "both sides gave it and took it". When football did break out there were fleeting glimpses of what might have been from two sides who have genuine abilities to excite.
Boro, driven forward by a dynamic Paul Ince, who surprisingly and refreshingly did not get involved in the petty acts around him, dominated territorially and seemed likely to record their fifth successive win when Hamilton Ricard scored what he described as his best goal for the club, a drive which swerved with such a vengeance that Thomas Sorenson did not get near it.
Typically, the piece of sublime football was nullified by a piece of acting by Niall Quinn, who undoubtedly made contact with Phil Stamp but who collapsed to the turf as if he had run into a bulldozer. Yes, Stamp's hands were raised and penalties have been given for similar things before, but every player on the pitch knew Quinn made the most of it and, when the letters arrive protesting about this piece of analysis, every Sunderland supporter has an inkling too.
Kevin Phillips took the penalty, it was saved by Mark Schwarzer and Michael Reddy swept in the rebound. It was his first goal for Sunderland, he is a 19-year-old from Kilkenny and, according to Ball, "he is a naturally gifted player". It would have been nice to concentrate on a young man who may be a genuine talent. Sadly, others made that impossible.
Goals: Ricard (75) 1-0; Reddy (78) 1-1.
Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Schwarzer; Vickers, Pallister, Cooper; Stamp, Juninho, Ince, O'Neill, Ziege; Ricard, Deane. Substitutes not used: Fleming, Mustoe, Gascoigne, Armstrong, Beresford (gk).
Sunderland (4-4-2): Sorenson; Makin, Butler, Bould, Gray (Reddy, 76); Summerbee, Roy (Williams, 34), McCann (Ball, 70), Schwarz; Quinn, Phillips. Substitutes not used: Rae, Marriott (gk).
Referee: G Barber (Tring).
Bookings: Middlesbrough: Vickers, Deane, O'Neill. Sunderland: Butler, Quinn, Phillips, Schwarz, Williams, Ball. Sending-off: Sunderland: Makin.
Man of the match: Ince.
Attendance: 37,793 (stadium record).