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Roles reversed after derby-day draw
FOR March at St James' Park, read October at the Stadium of Light.
Then, as now, Sunderland and Newcastle shared the derby-day spoils with an action-packed 1-1 draw. Then, as now, one of the regional rivals was forced to play with ten men for a sizeable chunk of the game. Then, as now, the side with 11 men eventually forced a dramatic equaliser in the closing stages.
The big difference is that whereas it had been Newcastle frantically scrambling a point seven months ago, this time it was Sunderland snatching a draw at the death.
So while the Magpies will wake this morning ruing the concession of a late equaliser, it is Sunderland who have greater cause to be concerned by yesterday's events.
It is now one win in the last 16 derbies for the Black Cats, a sequence of sorrow that never really looked like being improved.
A draw always feels that much better when it is secured late on, but once the dust has settled, Sunderland's players and supporters will not be able to reflect on yesterday's events with too much satisfaction.
Despite playing against ten men for more than an hour, the hosts needed a fortuitous deflection off Demba Ba to claim a point.
Newcastle had a man advantage for the final half-an-hour of March's derby, yet still managed to generate enough of a head of steam to make their eventual equaliser feel thoroughly deserved.
Was Sunderland's equaliser yesterday equally inevitable? Hardly, given that Tim Krul was not required to make a meaningful save all game. Even John O'Shea's header for the goal was drifting off target and there has to be concern about the Black Cats' lack of creativity and guile in attack.
Steven Fletcher is still the only Sunderland player to have scored a Premier League goal this season, and both James McClean and Stephane Sessegnon continue to be pale imitations of the players who swept Martin O'Neill's side forward last term.
Adam Johnson has been equally ineffectual in his four league appearances so far, and at the moment, it is hard to argue that the present Sunderland side is a marked improvement on the one that finished 13th in May.
Had yesterday's game ended in a 1-0 defeat, it might have heralded the same sharp decline that followed last season's opening derby in August.
There should be no such malaise this time around, but with last month's 1-0 win over Wigan representing Sunderland's only top-flight success since March, there is a need to make the most of a decent run of fixtures that does not see Sunderland face one of the established big boys until the middle of December.
Newcastle are also about to embark on an inviting run of games, and while the Tynesiders were unable to hold on for what would have been their fifth win in the last eight derbies on Wearside, they left the Stadium of Light with greater cause for optimism.
They were the better side when it was 11 against 11, with Ba and Shola Ameobi causing problems in attack and both Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa probing effectively from midfield.
They had to radically alter their game plan following Cheik Tiote's dismissal, yet remained just as defensively solid, with the returning Fabricio Coloccini especially influential at the heart of the back four.
Coloccini, such an important player to the Magpies, was superb, and with Tim Krul and Steven Taylor back in the fray, the defensive uncertainties of the last few weeks should be less evident in the next few matches.
Newcastle were unruffled throughout yesterday, with James Perch successfully helping to shore up the midfield after replacing Tiote and both Ben Arfa and Jonas Gutierrez working tirelessly to support their full-back.
It was a herculean team effort, and after togetherness and team spirit played such an important role in the Magpies' fifth-placed finish last season, Alan Pardew will have been delighted to see his players reprising the qualities that served them so well.
They didn't claim the victory, but apart from Tiote's tackle, it was hard to pick holes in any element of their display. On derby day, that surely counts as a moral success.
There was another success to be celebrated yesterday, namely that the 146th derby contained less of the poison and histrionics that made March's meeting such an unseemly affair.
There was the odd unnecessary challenge, most notably the 25th-minute lunge that saw Tiote become the first Newcastle player ever to be sent off in a competitive match against Sunderland, and some unsavoury chanting from both sets of fans, with one song aimed at Steven Taylor from the home supporters causing particular offence.
But both on and off the field, while tempers were raised, they did not boil over. Both managers behaved impeccably; both sets of players conducted themselves in a manner that upheld the best traditions of the North-East's biggest game but never crossed the line of acceptability in too damaging a manner.
This has been a trying week for football, with racist abuse in Serbia, racial controversy here in England and a Leeds United fan assaulting a player at Sheffield Wednesday on Friday night combining to create a series of unsavoury headlines.
A Wear-Tyne derby, particularly one with a last-gasp equaliser, has the potential to cause mayhem. Last March, it did, with Pardew and O'Neill clashing on the touchline, Sunderland skipper Lee Cattermole seeing red after the final whistle and allegations of improper conduct in the referees' room setting both sides against each other.
The fall-out from yesterday's game was much less dramatic, and while it is to be hoped the Sunderland supporters change their repertoire ahead of the return at St James' in April, the second derby of the season can be anticipated with excitement rather than dread.