Pain or glory; the FA Cup provided both yesterday for one man. Barry Robson did not quite have an afternoon like Tommy Hutchinson, who scored at both ends in the 1981 final, but he came pretty close.
It was reassuring for everyone bar Robson himself that the old competition can still stir such wildly fluctuating emotions. Hero to a pocket of the stadium and a pocket of the north-east for 43 minutes, and then villain, his goal was a strike of genuine quality. Of course, it had to be Robson – the two managers, Martin O'Neill and Tony Mowbray, are so steeped in Celtic folklore, but a former Hoops player stole the limelight from both of them.
The volley that so typified the fluency, adventure and flair of Mowbray's side came early, after just 16 minutes. If John O'Shea was culpable in failing to clear his line twice then he perhaps did not deserve and certainly did not expect the accuracy and precision Robson applied to the clearance – an angled volley from 20 yards that rightly beat goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. It was a delightful strike, cutting open the Sunderland defence and likewise this derby.
Only, just before the hour, he cocked it all up, erring spectacularly with a back-pass – immediately after a Middlesbrough corner, to add insult to injury – that had danger written all over it, even as he shaped to strike the ball.
The outstanding James McClean had sniffed out the opportunity, as had another man whose career has been in such jeopardy for the last 17 months. So McClean, a player of pace, pinched the weak pass, and Fraizer Campbell put his foot to the throttle for the first time since he twice damaged the anterior ligament in his knee. The reaction seemed to justify the smile that has apparently rarely wavered from his face during such a traumatic period of his career.
For 86 yards – television tracked the full length – he ran like the wind and, when the pass came, Campbell tucked a fine, right-footed finish into the bottom corner of the Middlesbrough goal. The forward could not hide his delight.
Robson could hardly watch, his head tucked firmly in his hands as Wearside rejoiced. Half an hour later, after he had been handed the man of the match award, he walked into the visiting dressing room and hurled the champagne that came with it in the bin.
The Scotland international does not drink, but the gesture was about frustration and anger and a player that Mowbray believes can help take his club back to the Premier League, was still fuming. "He's a very emotional boy," Mowbray said. "There is champagne in the bin. He has apologised but he didn't have to. He has the heart the size of a lion. He epitomised the spirit we require. In the Championship you have to fight your corner in every game. He leads from the front in every game and he has a great left foot."
Robson's mistake, and it is, as Mowbray alluded to, unfair to pillory such a decent and honest player, was one of two huge turning points in the game for the brave visitors.
On the stroke of half-time Lukas Jutkiewicz saw a shot saved by Mignolet before Faris Haroun struck the rebound back into Jutkiewicz's path. From there, he shot wide. Then it was Mowbray who had his head in his hands. "We should have been 2-0 up," he said. "That would have left them with a mountain to climb." By then, Sunderland had been denied an equaliser. Craig Gardner more or less caught the ball as he charged into the Middlesbrough six-yard area. For that offence he was not penalised, but as he slipped a low, angled shot into the bottom corner of the visitors' goal, Kevin Friend's assistant flagged against Connor Wickham, who was in an offside position but had not touched the ball.
There was an argument to be made, but if the first offence had been spotted, much needless debate would have been made redundant. Right decision, wrong reason, came the later call. That was in the 39th minute. Twenty minutes later Robson made his mistake and Campbell had his moment.
Then we had a Cup-tie. To their credit, Middlesbrough still passed the ball well. Mowbray possesses strong beliefs and the likes of Matthew Bates, the coveted Rhys Williams and Robson carry them on to the field. There did not look a division between the two sides, and that is meant as a compliment to Middlesbrough, not a slur on their hosts.
From somewhere, O'Neill has found genuine pace. When McClean, Stéphane Sésségnon and Campbell broke late on there was a genuine threat. Not enough to defeat Middlesbrough, though. That would have been cruel and there had been enough of that already.
Sunderland: MIGNOLET; BARDSLEY; O'SHEA; BROWN; RICHARDSON; LARSSON; GARDNER; VAUGHAN; McLEAN; WICKHAM; SESSEGNON
Middlesbrough: COYNE; HOYTE; BATES; HINES; McMAHON; ROBSON; WILLIAMS; McDONALD; EMNES; HAROUN; JUTKIEWICZ
Substitutes: Sunderland Campbell (Wickham, h-t). Turner (Brown, 60), Colback (Vaughan, 80). Middlesbrough Ripley (Coyne, 80). Booked: Sunderland Richardson. Middlesbrough Hoyte, Williams.
Man of the match McClean. Match rating 7/10. Possession: Sunderland 53% Middlesbrough 47%.
Attempts on target: Sunderland 5 Middlesbrough 4. Referee K Friend (Leicestershire).
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