A storm on England's east coast: it snapped and it crackled, but the electricity generated on Wearside yesterday was only sporadically illuminating. Too many fuses blown in the shape of misplaced passes and, in Sunderland's case, too many chances not taken. At its end, Newcastle had still not been beaten on Wearside since 1980 and it was their fans singing after the final whistle.
At 1-0 down, courtesy of Danny Higginbotham's first goal for Sunderland, Newcastle's supporters were quiet and contemplating defeat. That was the 52nd minute, and Craig Gordon in the Sunderland goal was yet to make a save.
When James Milner collecteda one-two from Joey Barton 13 minutes after Higginbotham's header and swept in a low, speculative cross, Gordon was still yet to make one. Perhaps wrong-footed by Paul McShane's attempted interception, Gordon watched with the rest of the players and the sell-out crowd as the ball skipped towards the far post and went in off the upright.
His manager, Roy Keane, attached no blame to Gordon or any of his defenders, but Keane was doing his best to smile in disappointing circumstances. He had watched as Ross Wallace, Grant Leadbitter – twice – and Michael Chopra all looked on the verge of scoring in a first half Sunderland dominated, and even after Milner's fortunate equaliser,Keane saw Kenwyne Jones skew a good opening and Chopra hit the crossbar.
There were eight minutes left when Chopra, the Newcastle-born former Newcastle player, met Ian Harte's deep cross at the far post. The ball clipped the underside of the bar, bounced down and it was a tribute to Steven Taylor's commitment that he got his head to the ball then when any Sunderland contact would surely have made it 2-1.
Sunderland could have lost it when Michael Owen, Newcastle's captain yesterday, controlled Steve Harper's 80-yard punt and bore down on Gordon only to shoot tamely, so Keane took his point, however unsatisfied he was about it. "A priority for any derby match is that you certainlydon't lose it," he said.
Sam Allardyce produced an almost identical comment and was infused with a sense of relief. "Unthinkable," was Allar-dyce's remark about the prospect of losing, and he hinted at Ruud Gullit's fate when he dropped Alan Shearer and lost the 1999 derby at St James' Park. Gullit was sacked.
It is one point from the last nine for Newcastle but Allar-dyce's position looks better than this time last week – post-Portsmouth – and he was honest enough to speak of Sunderland's superiority, especially in the first half. "Sunderland outmuscled us," Allardyce said. "Ken-wyne Jones is a very difficult customer to handle, but the way we gave the goal away, from a throw-in in their half, was very disappointing.
"But one thing Sunderland showed at Manchester City, as well as they played, was that they don't have a cutting edge. That was apparent again today."
Keane recalled Carlos Edwards on the right wing and his first serious cross, in the 15th minute, found Wallace unmarked behind Newcastle's back four. Wallace's volley, setting a tone, flew over.
With Abdoulaye Faye standing out, Newcastle steadied. Allardyce had placed Alan Smith, one of six Englishmen in the team, in front of the defence in the absence of Nicky Butt. Yet Sunderland kept going – Harper made a brave save at the feet of Chopra in the 33rd minute and Smith then cleared a goalbound Leadbitter shot. Harper followed that with a flying save to deny Chopra. Keane was getting agitated.
But seven minutes into the second half David Rozehnal con-ceded a corner and, taken short, Leadbitter floated a cross over Newcastle's scrambling defend-ers. Higginbotham met it on the run and butted Sunderland in front. The Stadium of Light's decibel level, already high, shot up. But Sunderland could not hold on to their lead, or to history. Their season is about making sure they get another crack next time.Reuse content