Sunderland summon spirit of past glories

Sunderland 1 Birmingham City 1
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The Independent Football

It was the night Sunderland players past and present paid their respects to Bob Stokoe. Before kick-off Jimmy Montgomery carried the FA Cup into the centre-circle to join two minutes' silence in memory of the managerial 'messiah' who guided the Wearside club to Wembley glory back in 1973. It was an occasion highly charged with emotion and nostalgia and, in the circumstances, it seemed only fitting that the Sunderland side of 2004 should revive the FA Cup spirit of '73.

Mick McCarthy's men have a long way to go before they come close to matching the heroes of 31 years ago, but in stretching Birmingham to the limit they summoned the kind of underdog grit and guile that took Stokoe's team all of the way. Birmingham are unbeaten in seven matches now, but the upwardly mobile Premiership side were on the ropes for much of a gripping fifth-round tie. With home advantage in the replay, Steve Bruce's men will fancy their chances of taking the Blues through to the quarter-finals for the first time in 20 years. They needed the crossbar to save them last night, though, after Kevin Kyle had equalised Mikael Forssell's 29th minute goal. It kept out a Stephen Wright volley and kept Birmingham in a competition they have yet to win.

To the credit of the 3,500 City fans in attendance, the two minutes' silence which preceeded the tie was impeccably observed and both sets of supporters had much to cheer in a rousing start. Birmingham were the first to make an impression, Bryan Hughes twisting free on the left and dinking a pass into the goalmouth, where Forssell and Clinton Morrison contrived to thwart each other in their eagerness to score. Not that Sunderland's appetite was any less ravenous.

Driven by the dogged determination of Jeff Whitley and Jason McAteer in central midfield, the First Division side had their Premiership opponents on the back foot for much of the opening quarter. They might have nosed in front had the ubiquitous Hughes not blocked a low drive from McAteer on the six-yard line. As it was, though, Sunderland were playing catch-up .

It was Forssell who made the breakthrough. Taking possession on the edge of the home penalty area, the Finn fended off Whitley, then swerved past Gary Breen, a one-time Birmingham captain, before curling a right-foot shot past Mart Poom. It was the Chelsea loanee's 11th goal of the season and it might have been swiftly followed by Birmingham's second. With the home goal at his mercy, though, the suspiciously offside Morrison shot wide of the target and relief soon turned to joy for the Sunderland supporters.

Kevin Kyle had not scored since Boxing Day but the strapping Scot stooped to meet a left-wing cross from Marcus Stewart with a fine glancing header to level the scores two minutes before half-time. It was no less than Sunderland deserved, and six minutes into the second-half they could not have come closer to taking the lead. From McAteer's right-wing cross, Wright glanced a right-footed volley over Maik Taylor but off the crossbar and back into play.

It was a close call for Birmingham and, though the pressure eased as the second half progressed, their goal remained under threat. Twice Kyle found himself in promising positions and twice the Scotland striker fired shots wildly off target. Not that it was all one-way traffic.

Stan Lazaridis fashioned two clear shooting opportunities, missing one and forcing a fine flying save from Poom with the other. But it was Birmingham who had reason to greet the final whistle with relief, John Oster having blasted wide a gilt-edged opportunity five minutes from time. They finished a man short, though, Aliou Cissé drawing two yellow cards in his nine minutes on the field as a replacement - the first for dissent, the second for a foul on Julio Arca.

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