Football: Reddy settles a point of honour

FA Premiership: Sunderland fall short of peak form, but lucky breaks lift Liverpool closer to the top: Middlesbrough 1 Sunderland 1 Ricard 76 Reddy 78 Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 34,793
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The Independent Online
SUNDERLAND have not sat on top of English football's highest division - apart from the opening week of the 1980-81 season, which they ended needing to win their final match at Liverpool to avoid relegation - since 1953, the year Hillary and Tensing planted the Union Jack on Everest. The Premiership's summit proved a peak too far for the Wearsiders yesterday. Instead, Peter Reid's high-climbers were happy to scale more parochial heights.

In overcoming a one-goal deficit, with just 10 men on their side for the best part of an hour, Sunderland emerged from a fractious Tees-Wear derby with a point of local honour as well as a point of Premiership worth.

Their cause looked to be a losing one when Hamilton Ricard, without a goal in 12 matches, beat Thomas Sorensen with a curling 20-yard shot in the 76th minute. Within two minutes, however, they were level. The diving Mark Schwarzer saved Kevin Phillips' penalty shot after Phil Stamp was punished for pushing Niall Quinn, but Michael Reddy, with his first touch as Michael Gray's replacement, was quickly on hand to crash in his first goal in English football. The teenager from Kilkenny was the toast of Wearside last night.

Since an opening day slaughter in the one-sided battle of Stamford Bridge, Sunderland had rebuilt the barricades to such good effect that they made the short trip down the A19 boasting the best defensive record in the Premiership, having conceded fewer goals per game (0.85) than even Chelsea (0.91). One reason for that is the man who has assumed the great Dane goalkeeping mantle from Peter Schmeichel in the Premiership this season. In persuading Odense to part with Sorensen for pounds 500,000 the summer before last, Reid completed as tidy a bit of transfer business as his pounds 375,000 steal of Phillips from Watford.

Sorensen still awaits his chance to succeed Schmeichel and make a mark at international level, but in 16 months at Sunderland he has laid claim to the status of an all-time great, with the cleanest goalkeeping sheet of any custodian in the club's 120-year history. He was no doubt relieved to find another of Reid's bargain buys lining up in front of him yesterday, after Paul Butler had recovered from a hamstring injury that kept him out of training all week, though Middlesbrough had the alarm bells ringing in the Sunderland defence in the early stages.

Juninho caused the first alert, shimmying past Stefan Schwarz inside the Boro half and slicing through the rest of the Sunderland midfield before slipping the ball to Christian Ziege on the left edge of the area. The German wing-back eluded Butler's challenge, but was dispossessed by the covering Steve Bould before he could unleash one of his fearsome left- foot shots.

The first attempt on either goal came in the 12th minute, as Keith O'Neill crossed from the left and Brian Deane sent a looping header a foot wide of Sorensen's right-hand post. But for several minutes the contest then descended to the base level of a bitter local dispute. It was all sparked by Deane crashing to the ground, an inch or two outside the Sunderland box, under challenge from Butler. The big defender stood over the poleaxed striker making his feelings clear and then fell to earth himself when Deane clearly elbowed him as the pair squared up again in the goalmouth. Both were yellow-carded, but the whiff or cordite remained in the air as Sunderland finally settled into something resembling their customary slick-passing stride.

They ought to have taken the lead in the 25th minute, but Phillips, after eluding Gary Pallister out on the left, failed to produce a clinical finish as he cut into the penalty area, firing tamely into the arms of Schwarzer. Sunderland, it seemed, were taking control.

But they suffered an almighty jolt in the 33rd minute. Chris Makin's crude challenge on Ricard fully merited a yellow card and the right-back only had himself to blame as he made his inevitable departure, having been booked 12 minutes earlier for stupidly disputing a free-kick awarded against him. Still, it could have been worse for Reid's men at half-time. From the free-kick that followed, Ziege dispatched a sweeping left-foot shot which Sorensen only just managed to tip over and then the hapless Ricard headed wide with the Sunderland goal at his nominal mercy.

Sunderland were the brighter in the initial stages of the second half, but were soon suffering from their numerical disadvantage. Juninho shot over the visitors' bar from the edge of the area, O'Neill had a left- foot drive pushed into the side-netting by Sorensen and Deane miscued from 15 yards. Sunderland were under constant threat as the red tide swept swept forward, though they did manage to relieve the pressure on occasions - even before the dramatic final 15 minutes.