“I’ve Seen Things You People Wouldn’t Believe.“
If you are expecting the usual clichés of two heads, smog and seriously dysfunctional families then I make no apologies, but I’m going to resist the usual tired Boro stereotypes.
Thanks to the returning Fraizer Campbell’s equaliser at the Stadium last Sunday week, on Wednesday night two of us ventured on a short trip down the A19 for part two of the strangely anticipated double header.
I say strangely anticipated, because a visit to Middlesbrough as a Sunderland fan is invariably a fraught affair. In the past, the toxic atmosphere at Tees/Wear clashes hasn’t been helped by Cleveland police adopting a surprisingly laissez faire attitude to end of match segregation with inevitable argy bargy. Let’s face it though, as a group of fans they hate us. In fact we’re about as welcome at the Riverside as Dr Marietta Higgs at a Teesside and Tourism convention.
Having managed to get a flier from our respective work we left Sunderland calling at Easington Lane in what we thought was plenty of time, but a combination of slow moving traffic all the way from Wolviston to the Riverside, and some inexplicably closed roads to MFC’s recommended car parks that required a quick rethink, meant that we eventually got into the stadium, breathless and irritated, 10 minutes after the match had kicked off.
Although late, it turns out we fared better than many fellow fans, with a number of our coaches still arriving as we made our way through the turnstiles. Of course we didn’t know at the time but there had also been even worse chaos on some of the trains, resulting in quite a few SAFC fans missing the whole of the first half.
Despite all of the transport hassles, it looked to be a decent turn out from the Boro lot, by their notoriously fickle standards anyway, and with our end eventually full to the brim with 4200 souls as expected, the atmosphere was pretty lively despite the bitter cold conditions.
I hate getting into a match late. It doesn’t happen very often; Wigan away a few years ago springs to mind when my tomtom developed a mind of its own and we ended up in Billinge (no, me neither), but I like to get into the ground 15 minutes before kick off just to get my bearings. On Wednesday night by the time my few remaining cognitive faculties kicked in we were deep into the first half, so I apologise if the actual match reportage is even more sketchy than usual.
Boro looked neat and tidy, as they had done in the first leg, but not particularly threatening. The last bit may have something to do with a long forgotten sense of ease watching Sunderland that is slowly returning under each game of O’Neill’s tutelage. Cockiness, arrogance, over confidence it is most certainly not, but it really feels that gone are the days when we seemed to be one only step away from the football equivalent of self harm. You don’t need to watch our current lot through the gaps in your fingers.
We were certainly not at our best, and some credit must go to Boro, as they didn’t give us the opportunity to employ our recent brand of attacking with speed and intent on the break. To be honest for 40 minutes we huffed and puffed with Sessegnon, McClean and Campbell pretty busy but not startlingly effective.
Then, at the far end almost out of nowhere, Colback found space in the advanced left position he often occupied with distinction in the reserves, calmly cushioned the ball with his chest from a perfect Campbell knockback and let rip with a left footed half volley that I thought was always beating the keeper but seemed to be going just over. Fortunately it dipped at the last minute, pinged down off the bar and over the line.
Minutes later a poor header by Turner fell to Boro, but the oft maligned Bardsley was alert enough with a sliding clearance from the resultant goal bound shot to help out a befuddled Mignolet and we still , just about deservedly, went in one up at half time.
On 57 minutes once again we were back to square one when, at the far end, O’Shea just managed to get his head on a cross from the right, but as Turner moved towards him, presumably to give him a congratulatory cuddle, it left Jutkiewicz unattended and he calmly stroked it past Mignolet .
By this time the temperature had taken a turn for the Baltic, the police were threatening to hold us back for 20 minutes so for the miserablist this game was beginning to bear all the hallmarks of extra time and pens. Right at the end of normal time however, and shortly after a knackered and slightly crestfallen Campbell was replaced by Wickham, we were witness to an incident that momentarily took our minds off what was beginning to look like a very late finish.
It is said that Ridley Scott’s dystopian vision of future LA in his sci-fi classic was inspired when, as a young art college student in Hartlepool, he experienced firsthand the sights and sounds of Teesside’s industrial landscape at night, but what happened next was not so much Blade Runner but more Dawn of the Dead meets Dumb and Dumber.
Two barely humanoid life forms emerged from amongst the Boro lot in the stand just to the right of our end, and managing to evade the assembled ranks of stewards and police they proceeded with a comically uncoordinated mini pitch invasion with the apparent intention of confounding a promising Sunderland attack.
I say apparent intention because one of interlopers, clearly under the influence of something more exotic than parmos and lager, promptly executed a clumsy tackle from behind on a Boro player, namely a startled Justin Hoyte, once of this parish.
Pitch invasion is one thing, a pathetic selfish look-at-me act, but assaulting and possibly injuring a member of the team you profess to support really does redefine stupidity.
Meanwhile, the slightly more gifted one of the duo, once he had given up chasing after the match ball, managed to organise his brain cells sufficiently to target an opposition player, strangely ignoring our miniature lad from Benin in favour of the far more substantial frame of Wickham.
Connor, with what turned out to be his most effective move of the night, reacted instantly to this bizarre intimidation with the splendidly childish gesture of openly mocking the approaching fan’s jug like ears. He may have also stuck out his tongue, but I was partially unsighted by the rows of disbelieving Sunderland fans in front of me craning their necks for a better view, and that could well be wishful thinking on my part.
Suitably chastened or just confused, the two mentally challenged miscreants scampered off the pitch to a predictably indecent chorus from the Sunderland contingent, straight into the arms of the waiting police and, if there is any justice, the pair were subsequently charged with gross public idiocy.
Added time arrived without further interruption with Boro and Sunderland trading, it has to be said, pretty powder-puff punches and it remained all square at half time of extra time, if you get my drift.
Five minutes into the final chapter before the looming penalty anguish, we held our breath as Wickham, right in front of our end, found himself in the box with the ball at his feet. Unfortunately the youngster needed so much time to gain any semblance of control never mind get a shot away, the closing Boro defenders had time to complete The Guardian crossword before blocking the move.
Then we experienced one of those ‘OHFORFUCKSAKE-GERRINYOUBASTARD’ moments because as the ball broke from the ponderous Wickham it popped up at the feet of Sessegnon who, in stark contrast, needed significantly less than a nanosecond to poke it home. Cue much unconstrained daftness in the away end.
A few minutes later the ex PSG box of tricks was leaving the field to be replaced by Meyler. As he did so he walked past a particularly lugubrious Mowbray, who at this point appeared to be looking round distractedly for the missing wheel of his carefully constructed game plan. After similar predictions as West Brom manager that came back to bite him on the arse, you’d think he’d have learned to keep his pre-match gob shut.
Apart from the acrid fumes of a smoke bomb, or scented candle as it’s known on Teesside, drifting from high in the away end serenely, San Siro style across The Riverside, there were no more dramas before full time.
As the whistle blew the clearly knackered players and our indefatigable manager acknowledged our once again remarkable away support and the scarcely believable renaissance under the elfin O’Neill continues.
As forewarned, we were then kettled like common criminals for 20 minutes, but at least we had ample time to contemplate the coincidence of back to back home games with the mighty, but no longer invincible Arsenal, before we joined, in our by now borderline hypothermic state, the long and happy convoy of cars and coaches heading back up the A19 towards home.