Apparently going out of the FA Cup on penalties is as cruel as it gets; try then, falling to your local rivals from the league above with half a team, seven minutes from the end of extra-time in a replay.
That felt pretty harsh, given the bravery Middlesbrough had shown over two games, bridging a gap that was best exemplified by the forward who scored the winning goal in the 113th minute, Stéphane Sessègnon, a £5.7m signing from Paris St-Germain, and the player who did not manage the same at the other end, Curtis Main, who was given a free transfer from non-league Darlington last year.
"There is little consolation," said the Middlesbrough manager, Tony Mowbray. "When you go to extra-time you have to come out winning the match, not saying that you did alright. Sunderland found a way to win, we didn't.
"That is the level of performance we have found for most of the season. There was never a doubt in my mind that if we find a way of getting out of this league we can compete in the Premier League.
Martin O'Neill took his phenomenal record since his return to football management to nine wins in 13 games. Momentum, as did Sessègnon's late touch of quality, proved crucial. The Sunderland manager was perhaps at his most bullish, insisting his side deserved to win the tie.
There was precious little to separate the two over two intriguing ties, the home side making light of missing five regulars. After 42 minutes, Jack Colback took a Fraizer Campbell knockdown on his chest and then crashed a left foot volley into the top corner of Jason Steele's goal. Just before the hour mark, Middlesbrough had cleared their heads and equalised, the Sunderland defence opening, allowing Lukas Jutkiewicz the time to slot in his first goal since moving to the club for £1.3m from Coventry.
Sunderland's Phil Bardsley later struck a post, earlier Main was denied with a curling shot from distance and the visitors' keeper Simon Mignolet saved well from Seb Hines.
At the end of normal time, O'Neill put on Connor Wickham, a £10m signing from Ipswich in the summer. With seven minutes remaining, the striker appeared to have lost possession on the Middlesbrough penalty spot, but the ball broke to Sessègnon, and the finish went through a crowd of legs.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2) Steele; Hoyte, Hines, Bates, Bennett; McMahon, Williams, Thomson (Smallwood, 69), Arca (Reach, 78); Main, Jutkiewicz (Emnes 78). Substitutes not used Ripley (gk), McManus, Ogbeche, Martin.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Mignolet; Bardsley, O'Shea, Turner, Richardson; Larsson, Gardner, Colback, McClean; Sessegnon, Campbell. Substitutes not used Westwood (gk), Wickham, Ji, Meyler, Elmohamady, Lynch, Reed.
Referee A Taylor (Cheshire)Reuse content