Sunderland settle for second best

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The Independent Online
SIMON O'HAGAN

Watford 3 Sunderland 3

Sunderland were kicking themselves last night when, having won nine games on the trot to go four points clear at the top of the First Division, they had to settle for a draw at bottom-of-the-table Watford. Twice Sunderland led by two goals, but they came up against a side whose spirit might just ensure their survival.

On Saturday, Sunderland were within eight minutes of losing at home to Huddersfield Town when two goals from their 17-year-old substitute Michael Bridges brought them a 3-2 victory. But this is the time of the season when managers are even more hard-headed than usual, and all Bridges was rewarded with was another place on the bench.

Craig Russell, who had given way to Bridges, thus continued his partnership up front with the veteran Paul Stewart, and each man quickly made his mark - but as maker rather than taker.

Sunderland were already comfortably in control when, in the 17th minute, Michael Gray exposed the Watford defence with a nimble run up the left. From his precise cross, Russell got away with what looked like handball before laying the ball back for Steve Agnew to drive a low shot beyond the diving Kevin Miller. Two minutes later and another well-worked goal made it 2-0. This time Stewart chested down Darius Kubicki's pass into the path of Kevin Ball, who finished confidently.

Watford might have been expected to cave in, but they remained lively and with half an hour gone Tommy Mooney hooked the ball in after Kerry Dixon had done well to reach Dominic Ludden's cross. As half-time approached it was the Sunderland goal that was beginning to feel the pressure, but in the 42nd minute Russell picked up Stewart's pass to put his team 3- 1 up.

But again any thoughts Sunderland had of consolidation were quickly dispelled. The second half was 30 seconds old when Darren Bazeley crossed from the right and Mooney headed past Shay Given to put Watford back in with a fighting chance. Mooney was having a fine game quite apart from his sure touch in front of goal, and with vigorous support coming from the Watford midfield, an equaliser was becoming a distinct possibility.

Its arrival, 14 minutes from the end, asked further questions of the Sunderland defence's ability to deal with high balls into the six-yard box. This one came from a Ludden throw-in, which Craig Ramage back-headed in via the underside of the bar.

Watford (5-3-2): Miller; Bazeley, Page, Millen, Foster (Porter, h-t), Ludden; Hessenthaler, Palmer, Ramage; Mooney, Dixon. Substitutes: White, Connolly.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Given; Kubicki, Melville, Ord, Scott; Agnew (Hall, 76), Ball, Bracewell, M Gray; Russell (Bridges, 70), Stewart. Substitutes: Hall, Howey.

Referee: R Gifford (Mid-Glamorgan).

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