Football: Johnston strikes to satisfy Premier passion

Sunderland 2 Phillips 16, Johnston 85 Portsmouth 1 Hall 73 Attend ance: 38,134
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The Independent Online
IT might be more than mere coincidence that the screening of the fifth and final episode of Premier Passions has been postponed from Tuesday night to accommodate coverage of the 70th Academy Awards ceremony. Could it be that Sunderland's small screen story of a sinking ship will submerge the mighty Titanic? Like the Hollywood blockbuster, the Wearside version has an unhappy ending, as BBC1 viewers will be reminded on Tuesday week. The fear as the credits prepared to roll at the Stadium of Light yesterday was that Peter Reid's latest cast could be staging a real-life repeat this season.

For a third successive match, Reid's promotion hopefuls were contemplating two dropped points. A fluffing of lines, between Lionel Perez and Darren Williams on the edge of the Sunderland penalty area, had cost them the lead. And Pompey were threatening to chime the winning note - until Allan Johnston produced the late twist in the plot. With five minutes left, the Scot unleashed a blockbuster from 25 yards. The performance had been on the village hall side of unconvincing. But, as the drama queens, and kings, will doubtless testify in Los Angeles this week, winning is everything.

The matinee show yesterday kicked off with two members of Newcastle's Dance City troupe pirouetting on the turf to the strains of Prokofiev. As a culture shock, it was a departure of Richter Scale proportions from the Roker Park days when pre-match entertainment meant throwing peanuts at the programme sellers on the ash track. Sadly, when it came to the working man's ballet yesterday, the action was prosaic rather than classical.

For a quarter of an hour Sunderland were, to borrow the words of their alphapetically-minded manager, unable to master the elementary art of passing the ball from "A to effing B". The tedium was relieved only by the unfurling in the main stand of a banner celebrating the rival version of Premier passions up the road on Tyneside. "Doon Army," it stated in black and white. "Freddie and Douglas. Mackems in disguise. Keep up the good work." A Mackem, it ought to be explained, is the North-east name for a native of Wearside. And the one responsible for yesterday's show of schadenfreude was swiftly instructed to cover it up.

The Mackems, though, had something to shout about in the 16th minute, when Michael Gray assumed position A wide on the left and made a conspicuous success of getting the ball to position B, on the edge of the six-yard box. Kevin Phillips duly headed in the cross, the 26th goal of the season by the poacher who spent his apprentice days at The Dell cleaning the boots of Alan Shearer - or was it the parasol of Mary Poppins? The basics of football geometry, however, continued to elude Phillips and his colleagues.

Portsmouth assumed control from the moment, just past the half-hour mark, Alan Ball withdrew Michalis Vlachos and sent on John Aloisi as an attacking foil for Paul Hall, a hitherto isolated figure. The Australian brought with him the sharpness required, slicing through the home guard on three occasions, though failing to deliver the final piercing blow. When Portsmouth's overdue equaliser eventually arrived, after 72 minutes, it came courtesy of Perez and Williams, whose collision presented the grateful Hall with a formality of a finish.

The game seemed Pompey's for the taking, even after Daniele Dichio rose from the bench to head against their crossbar. But then Johnston cued up the punchline for Sunderland - and struck it with perfect delivery.

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