Sunderland 0 Middlesbrough 3: Hasselbaink sees off hospitable neighbours

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The Independent Football

Mick McCarthy constantly reminds his critics that for as long as he retains the ability to motivate Sunderland's players he has earned the right to manage a football club with nothing but pride to play for.

This pitiful performance against a Middlesbrough team which had won just one of its previous 11 Premiership fixtures suggested the Black Cats' embattled manager has now lost the dressing-room, in addition to 18 League fixtures this season.

Whether that means McCarthy will now step down from one of the most thankless jobs in football remains to be seen. However, the nature of successive defeats against Brentford and Boro means there is surely nowhere else to go if he can no longer guarantee determination or commitment from his players.

Prior to this Wear-Tees derby there was a belief that Steve McClaren was facing the same problem. So emphatic was this victory, with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink adding a stunning third to first-half strikes from Emanuel Pogatetz and Stuart Parnaby, that such accusations suddenly appeared ludicrous.

"This was the biggest game of the season for us and it was the most important victory of our campaign," said McClaren. "Hopefully, this is a stepping stone. I would like to think we can go on a run after this result."

Barely three months ago Boro were on the fringes of the Premiership's top six and confidently coasting through a Uefa Cup group which presented an expensively assembled and experienced squad with few problems. Injuries to senior professionals and an over-reliance on the club's Academy had undermined confidence throughout McClaren's squad, but the Yorkshireman insisted his players were neither disparate nor disillusioned.

McCarthy has been saying much the same for many months now but his message of togetherness from within the Black Cats' camp is entirely credible: Sunderland's players have been united in their haplessness since November and on the evidence of the first half it is obvious why.

Stewart Downing's deep free-kick from the left after 19 minutes was speared towards Pogatetz but the defender had two opponents for company and any danger should have been cleared. In fact, the Austrian international beat the odds - as well as Steve Caldwell and Danny Collins - to direct a firm header in off Kelvin Davis's crossbar.

Twelve minutes later McCarthy's team was 2-0 down. Full-back Parnaby raced unchallenged down the right flank and, after exchanging passes with Mark Viduka, calmly dispatched the first League goal of his fledgling career.

Hasselbaink's third gave McClaren the opportunity to relax and McCarthy admitted: "That took the heart and soul out of the players." Perhaps, under their current manager, that heart and soul has been lost forever.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Davis; Hoyte, Breen, Caldwell, D Collins (Kyle, 32); Lawrence, Whitehead, Miller, Arca; Stead (Murphy, 78), Le Tallec. Substitutes not used: Alnwick (gk), Nosworthy, Bassila.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Parnaby, Southgate, Taylor, Pogatetz; Mendieta, Cattermole, Doriva, Downing (Johnson, 78); Hasselbaink (Yakubu, 79), Viduka (Davies, 64). Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Johnson, Maccarone.

Referee: A Wiley (Staffs).