Football: Sunderland on the brink

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The Independent Online
Sunderland 2

Quinn 28, Johnston 41

Huddersfield Town 0

Half-time: 2-0 Attendance: 41,074

THE RE-BUILDING work is just about ready to begin. If Sunderland win at Bury on Tuesday night, their Stadium of Light will finally be on the Premiership map and the bricks required to extend its capacity to 48,000 will be due for delivery. The wall of noise with 41,000 jammed inside has already turned the place into a fortress for Peter Reid's team whose formidable collection of home points, 56 out of a possible 63, has taken them to the very brink of promotion.

Yesterday, Huddersfield came, saw, and were duly conquered. A similar fate for Bradford City, who beat Portsmouth at Valley Parade, would have had the champagne corks popping and the cement-mixers mixing on Wearside last night. As it is, Sunderland still need two points from their last five matches to be mathematically certain of a place in the Premiership next season, though Reid and his players are assured of a place in the sun.

Yesterday's success, courtesy of first-half goals by Niall Quinn and Allan Johnston was their 12th consecutive home win - eclipsing the winning Roker Park run of the great 1936-37 Sunderland team captained by Raich Carter. Only "The Team Of All The Talents", as the Championship winning side of 1891-92 were known, stand between Reid's 20th- century boys and the all-time club record. They won all 13 of their First Division fixtures at Newcastle Road, a free-kick away from the club's present home, that season.

Whether the latter-day Sunderland are a team of sufficient talents for the Premiership remains to be seen, but they patently have too much for the second-class station of the modern First Division. That much was evident from the start yesterday as Reid's champions-elect set up base camp in the Huddersfield half. They forged five clear chances in the opening 10 minutes and were assured enough to retain their poise when the Terriers slipped free and showed attacking teeth of their own, Thomas Sorensen diving full length to push Ian Lawson's low drive on to his right-hand post and wide for a corner in the 16th minute.

With Lee Clark and Kevin Ball controlling central midfield, the red and white attacking waves continued. Quinn might have had a hat-trick before half-time but, with his family making their first trip from Tipperary to the Stadium of Light, he was happy enough with the single goal he claimed in the 27th minute. Not that it was worth coming a particularly long way to behold. The towering Irishman struggled to control Clark's neatly clipped cross from the right and his low shot trundled across the line in slow motion.

Johnston's goal, five minutes before the interval, was a thing of infinitely greater beauty. It was prompted by Nicky Summerbee with a cross from the left, set up by Kevin Phillips' cushioned header and finished in style by Johnston's crashing half-volley. Not that Huddersfield were finished at that stage. They had their chances as the Sunderland pressure eased after the break, Lawson shooting at Sorensen when Paul Butler's slip put him clean through and Wayne Allison heading Jamie Vincent's right-wing free-kick on to the roof of the net.

Sunderland, though, held out for their 28th clean sheet of the season. They finished appropriately on top, too, Phillips, twice, and Andy Melville forcing point-blank saves from Huddersfield's Belgian goalkeeper, Nico Vaesen, in the final 15 minutes.

All that remains for Sunderland is the formality of their graduation ceremony - and a summer of building work, on and off the pitch. "With three or four top-class signings," Clark said, "we could finish in the top 10 of the Premiership next season." That would represent a monumental success for Sunderland - they last finished in the top half of England's top division in 1955.

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