It proved to be a local spat in every sense at the Stadium of Light last night. Middlesbrough played the final 38 minutes of the Wear-Tees derby with 10 men after Gianluca Festa, their Italian central defender, was dismissed by the referee Paul Durkin for projecting a mouthful of spittle at Kevin Phillips directly in front of the referee.
It was a pity that the occasion was marred by such a base note, Sunderland's supporters having risen so admirably above the pettiness of local rivalry on what must have been a difficult night for their near neighbours. When the Middlesbrough fans housed in the South Stand chanted "There's only one Colin Cooper", the rest of the ground stood to applaud.
Given the circumstances of Cooper's absence, following the death of his two-year-old son, the football match was of minimal significance. Still, it was fitting that Middlesbrough should emerge victorious from it, courtesy of a Noel Whelan goal.
"The club has been in total shock over what has happened to Colin and his family," the Middlesbrough manager Steve McClaren said. "It really has been difficult to lift the place but the players showed great character tonight. Their first thoughts in the dressing-room afterwards were with Colin and his family, not with the victory." McClaren was reluctant to allow his own thoughts to stray to the 52nd minute incident in which Festa, his nose and mouth bloodied following a goalmouth incident, spat at Phillips while the referee was verbally admonishing him.
"I'm too angry to discuss the sending off," he said. "It was totally unprofessional. I will deal with it in my own time in the privacy of the club." Unfortunately for McClaren's opposite number, Festa was not the only object of anger. Chants of "Reid out!" greeted the final whistle after a frustrating night in which Peter Reid's side failed to convert possession into goals.
"I've had 'Cheer up Peter Reid!' and pats on the back when things have been going well," the Sunderland manager said. "I've just got to take it. I can understand the fans' reaction. These players will turn it round and I'll be here to help them." Reid's players without a win in six games now and due at Old Trafford on Saturday were unable to turn the tide last night after Boro hit them on the break in the 14th minute. The goal came from a Stefan Schwarz free-kick charged down by the defensive wall deep into the Middlesbrough half. Phil Stamp scampered up the left touchline before playing a cross-field pass that threw the home defence and left Whelan clear to stride into the penalty area and beat Thomas Sorensen with a low angled shot.
It was Whelan's fourth goal in four matches and it gave Middlesbrough a lead they almost let slip in the Sunderland onslaught that followed. Twice in as many minutes Mark Crossley came to the rescue of his side, tipping over a Phillips header from close range and stopping a Claudio Reyna drive with a brilliant diving save.
That apart, though, even with the numerical advantage they enjoyed from the 52nd minute, Sunderland lacked the attacking nous to break through Middlesbrough's massed defensive ranks. It said everything that their goalkeeper came the closest to scoring, Sorensen forcing a fine save from Crossley with a header from an injury-time corner.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Sorensen 5; Haas 4 (Bellion, 81), Craddock 4, Varga 4, Gray 4; McAteer 4 (Arca, 68, 4), Reyna 5, Schwarz 5; Quinn 4, Phillips 5. Substitutes not used: Macho (gk) Williams, McCartney.
Middlesbrough (5-3-2): Crossley 8; Stockdale 5, Festa 3, Southgate 7, Gavin 6, Queudrue 5; Stamp 6 (Mustoe, 73), Ince 5, Greening 5; Windass 5 (Gordon, 50, 6), Whelan 7 (Campbell, 83). Substitutes not used: Beresford (gk), Marinelli.
Referee: P Durkin (Portland) 7.Reuse content