Football: Gray buries Wembley demons

Sunderland 1 Queen's Park Rangers 0
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The Independent Online
By Scott Barnes

Sunderland 1 Queen's Park Rangers 0

OVERSHADOWING THE result was the injury. Lee Clark's broken ankle means that Sunderland, the pre-season favourites for the First Division crown, will be without their playmaker until Christmas.

"He makes us tick," his team-mate Michael Gray said. "He opens up defences. Some massive clubs were after him during the summer, and anyone of his calibre is going to be missed in any team."

For 37 minutes the former Newcastle player graced the Stadium of Light, standing out as Queen's Park Rangers sat back. Lying deep, his back four put the ball at his feet and he sent it intelligently towards the head of Niall Quinn, the chests of the wingers Mick Summerbee and Allan Johnston or the feet of Kevin Phillips.

The game was much poorer after Clark's departure on a stretcher following Keith Rowland's clumsy but not malicious challenge. Clark's natural replacement, Alex Rae, is still three weeks away from fitness after a hernia operation and, though Darren Williams filled in competently, it is doubtful whether the 21-year-old Teessider is mature enough to become the powerhouse of a promotion chasing side. Peter Reid gave debuts to two pounds 1m signings - Thomas Sorensen in goal and no-nonsense Paul Butler in central defence - and may well have to spend some more.

Overlooked in the furore over the injury was the rehabilitation of Gray, who had a black day at Wembley at the end of last season when his scuffed penalty ended Sunderland's Premiership ambitions. Switching flanks to a accommodate the return at left-back of Martin Scott after 18 months and 10 abdominal operations, Ray Harford, Rangers' manager, identified Gray as the biggest threat to the massed ranks of his defence.

Gray's performance was characterised by a flashing 25 yard drive that flew just wide from an unlikely angle in the first half and an 87th minute shimmy and run that ended with a tame shot when the ultra-loyal supporters were sucking him goalwards with his noise.

"The crowd was fantastic," he said. "I've had at least 300 letters and faxes, so many I can't reply to them all, and they kept on coming through the summer. I even got one from Dennis Tueart at Manchester City, saying I was to keep my head up and that I had a big enough character to get over it. And the lads in the team have been superb. The gaffer took me away for a weekend with Lee Clark to get away from things."

Despite the injury to Clark the home side secured a positive result, secured by Phillips' late penalty. However, Quinn might have pushed Lee Harper into dropping the ball before Ian Baraclough, who was sent off, felt forced to clear Williams' goalbound stab with his hand. It means Sunderland have won their first opening game in nine years - certainly a better start than last season when five defeats in their first 10 games effectively condemned them to the play-offs.

"It might not have been a convincing win," Phillips said, "but at this point in the season it doesn't matter how you play, as long as you get the results."

Goal: Phillips (pen 75) 1-0.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Sorensen; Gray, Craddock, Butler, Scott; Summerbee (Bridges, 88), Ball, Clark (Williams, 38), Johnston; Quinn, Phillips. Substitute not used: Dichio.

Queen's Park Rangers (5-4-1): Harper; Heinola, Yates (Slade, 80), Ready, Maddix, Baraclough; Scully, Peacock, Murray, Rowland; Gallen. Substitutes not used: Kulcsar, Rose.

Referee: C J Foy (St Helens).

Bookings: Sunderland: Scott. Queen's Park Rangers: Maddix, Peacock, Rowland.

Sending off: Queen's Park Rangers: Baraclough.

Man of the match: Gray.

Attendance: 41,008.