Sunderland aspirations soaring

Sunderland 3 Derby County 0
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The Independent Online
It is a derby they want in Sunderland, not Derby. That was spelt out in the dirt on the back of a van near the ground. "Scum 0 Man Utd 1" it read and just in case you did not realise who the insult was aimed at, Roker Park echoed in homage to Eric Cantona.

Any blow to Newcastle is cherished on Wearside and for a week Manchester United have been lauded there. Just one thing dulled the joy: they wish the damage to Tyneside title aspirations had not been done by proxy. Sunderland would prefer to be holding the dagger at the scene of the crime themselves.

On the evidence of this match they will get a chance next season. A scrappy affair full of no-prisoner tackles, Sunderland, second in the First Division, nevertheless gave the team immediately above them a fearful beating. If the ball came off the pitch in need of therapy then so did Derby, who under- performed miserably.

The visitors arrived at Roker Park with an unbeaten league run of 20 matches, but failed to bring any notion of defensive security with it. The back five were close to hopeless and as the midfield were barely any better, it was no wonder the attack could not muster a shot on target until the 85th minute. By then, the points had long gone.

"In a daft sort of way, I'm pleased the run's finished," Jim Smith, the Derby manager, said, trying to salvage something from the shambles. "It brought a pressure that we didn't want. You know: 'How many games are you going to go? How long can it last?' Now we have 10 games to build another sequence."

On the match itself, he was typically blunt. "We never got started. They wanted it more than us. We said before the game if we defended properly we would get a result, but we didn't."

At first, it appeared they might, but once Paul Stewart, making his debut since his free transfer from Liverpool, won the ball in the air to prime Steve Agnew's cross for Craig Russell's seventh-minute goal, the result was not in doubt. There was not an abundance of eye-catching football, but what there was came from the men in red and white stripes.

Agnew put Sunderland further ahead, side-footing in at the far post from Martin Scott's cross and by the time Russell got his second after 67 minutes, the home team could have been four or five in front.

Agnew and Paul Bracewell assumed command in midfield and when Derby did manage to muster a threat, Richard Ord squashed it with massive authority. He also has a pass with his left foot that will embarrass higher profile but less accurate centre-backs in the Premiership if Sunderland get there. Now four points behind Derby, with two games in hand, they should.

"That's the best performance since I've been here," Peter Reid, the Sunderland manager, said. "Derby are a good side - the league table doesn't lie - yet we looked very, very strong. Physically, we won battles all over the pitch."

There were a few verbal tussles being waged off it, too. A BBC reporter was spotted in the press box as the ground emptied and was given a dreadful roasting for the emphasis local television has placed on events at St James' Park. A stranger to these parts would have been astonished, he merely smiled like it was an everyday occurrence.

After three years without a derby, these people are desperate for a release. A chance to settle scores with Newcastle cannot come soon enough.

Goals: Russell (7) 1-0; Agnew (31) 2-0; Russell (67) 3-0.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Given; Kubicki, Melville, Ord, Scott; Agnew, Bracewell, Ball, M Gray (Hall, 80); Russell, Stewart (P Gray, 63). Substitute not used: Bridges.

Derby County (5-3-2): Hoult; Carsley, Yates (Carbon, 78), Stimac, Rowett, C Powell; Van der Laan (Hodges, h-t), D Powell, Simpson (Flynn h-t); Gabbiadini, Sturridge.

Referee: R Poulain (Huddersfield).

Bookings: Sunderland: Ball. Derby County: Flynn.

Man of the match: Ord. Attendance: 21,644.

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