It is a fair bet that Darren Williams was not walking the streets of his home town last night. The teenager from Middlesbrough was drafted into Sunderland's midfield yesterday with the specific intention of performing what might be termed as a Kaamarking job on Middlesbrough's No 10 in the other local scrap of critical importance in the Premier League yesterday. With Juninho on the bench at kick-off time, it seemed his afternoon might be spent marking time. Instead, Williams made his mark as the match- winner, with a goal that gives Sunderland a lifeline and leaves his home- town team fighting for Premiership life.
Williams' 44th-minute header also earned him a place alongside another Teessider in the annals of this particular North-eastern rivalry. Sunderland's last win in Middlesbrough dated back to times BC: 31 March 1962, in fact, when a certain Brian Clough scored the only goal in a Second Division meeting at Ayresome Park. The lingering irony for the locals, heartbroken again yesterday, was that Williams might have been on the home side. He was offered a YTS contract by Middlesbrough four years ago. "There were changes at Boro at the time which unsettled me," the 19-year-old said. "I decided to go to York City instead."
Sunderland just about deserved their victory, but Middlesbrough were not just yorked by the Boro boy who came home to haunt them. It is doubtful whether Gerald Ashby would have dared to venture into Middlesbrough town centre on his homeward journey. The Worcester referee ignored a blatant handling offence by Michael Gray in the fifth minute and bemused even the Wearsiders in attendance by brandishing yellow, not red, when Lionel Perez raced out of his area and sent Mikkel Beck crashing to the ground.
Bryan Robson made five changes to the side beaten by Leicester in the Coca-Cola Cup final replay on Wednesday night and his reshuffle looked likely to pay dividends as Beck and Neil Cox tested the reflexes of Sunderland's French goalkeeper in the opening eight minutes. The red tide turned with one sweeping cross-field pass delivered from Chris Waddle's left boot although Allan Johnston's woeful first touch wasted the chance.
Beck rattled Perez's right-hand post on a rare Boro break but it was Robson's men who were rattled by half-time. Waddle, inevitably, was the source of their torment. His free-kick from the right invited a header as it arced along the six-yard line and Williams duly obliged.
Robson released Juninho from bench duty eight minutes into the second half, thus providing Williams with his intended task. The local lad was obliged to make a bookable challenge the first time the Brazilian threatened to slip free but Sunderland held firm under pressure to record their first league win away from Roker Park since November.
Peter Reid and his players will face Southampton at home on Tuesday with renewed heart. Middlesbrough have their FA Cup semi-final replay with Chesterfield that night - followed by at least another six cup finals like yesterday's before their marathon season ends.