In the end this was a passionate, memorable but inconclusive 1-1 draw, in which Sunderland led for most of the game in what was a hugely intense and entertaining Wear-Tyne derby clash.
And for once the use of the word 'clash' is accurate - players did not hold back and there we 5 bookings for the home team, plus 3 bookings for the Black Cats, who also suffered a red card for Sessegnon's elbow. Sunderland’s line-up was as follows: 22 Mignolet, 02 Bardsley, 04 Turner, 11 Richardson (Bridge - 85'), 16 O'Shea, 06 Cattermole, 07 Larsson (Colback - 73'), 08 Gardner, 23 McClean, 28 Sessegnon, 52 Bendtner (Campbell - 71')
The barcodes were represented by 26 Krul, 02 Coloccini, 03 Santon (Ben Arfa - 46'), 05 Simpson, 06 Williamson, 16 R Taylor (Lovenkrands - 88'), 04 Cabaye, 18 Gutierrez, 24 Tiote, 09 Cisse (Ameobi - 72'), 19 Ba.
This was not a quiet game - fiery is not the word! It was a blood and guts NE derby game, not for the faint-hearted… Catts made his presence felt with a rough tackle on Tiote after just 30-odd seconds and his “contribution” drew comment from Alan Pardew after the game. The home team followed with 3 yellows, as carefully pointed out by Martin O’Neill in his post-match analyses.
There was some football played - Sunderland bossed the first half, and played pretty well, having found their feet again after the loss at the Hawthorns. Referee Mike Dean was very observant, awarding a penalty in the 24th minute against home centre-back Williamson for trying to rip the shirt from Michael Turner's chest while defending a free-kick.
Niklas Bendtner celebrated his recall to the starting line-up by beating Tim Krul from the spot, scoring his 4th. goal of the season with a sharp strike to the keeper’s right, celebrating with an elegant run and knee-slide á la Souness on the wet turf. Our first penalty goal of the season, and the Dane went close again with a long shot on 31 min., which Krul pushed wide.
The Mags did not really trouble Mignolet until just before the interval when he kept out Fabricio Coloccini's 39th-minute header, and Demba Ba's 44th minute header from a corner hit the bar. I was impressed by Ba, although he has now gone 3 games without scoring. His first half of the season propelled the home team to where they are now in the league.
The start of the second half was fairly even with shots on goal from both teams, and Sunderland had a great chance to go further ahead on 56 min when a lovely side-foot pass by Bendtner found Larsson, whose shot was saved by Krull, then McLean’s follow-up drive was scrambled away.
The whole complexion of the game changed a minute later when Sess flapped at Tiote with a limp fist – it was a sending off but Tiote went down after a few seconds and stayed down like he had been poleaxed. The dismissal revitalised the home side and it took a superb save from Mignolet to deny Hatem Ben Arfa a 77th-minute equaliser when he cut in from the left to blast a left-foot shot.
It was one-way traffic late on with our hearts in our mouths at times, especially when Ameobi was brought down but Mignolet earned his money and added to his growing reputation by saving the resultant penalty lick from Demba Ba.
But despite being a man down, Sunderland looked like having enough grit to keep the Mags at bay. Michael Turner and John O’Shea were exceptional at the heart of our defence, regularly blocking and clearing - so the back line held out manfully, with the occasional slice of luck until the last minute when substitute Ameobi poked home from close range after a Williamson flicked header to a phenomenal collective sigh of relief from the home support.
Tiote celebrated with Pardew, who seemed to be play-acting to win over the home fans, Krul danced around on his own, while the rest of the Newcastle players celebrated with the fans.
So our hero O’Neill might not have been able to savour an early Tyne - Wear derby win as Sunderland manager, but one thing’s for sure: he knows exactly what it will mean to our fans to deliver one in the future. Honours even then, but this game will be talked about for some time…not least on MOTD 3; take a look at this.
Even when the final whistle was blown, the controversy was not over. Cattermole could not resist the temptation to criticise some of the referee’s decisions and he was red-carded at the end of a great individual display - "foul and abusive language" apparently. The Sunderland skipper has been handed a four-match ban in the wake of what the FA at least saw as an ill-tempered draw.
A spokesman said: "Stephane Sessegnon and Lee Cattermole have been handed 3- and 4-game bans respectively. The midfielder was shown a straight red card for foul and abusive language towards a match official in the moments following the full-time whistle on Tyneside.
"The offence automatically carries a two-match ban, with another two games added after Cattermole reached 10 bookings for an early foul on Cheick Tiote. Meanwhile, Stephane Sessegnon will serve a three-match ban after being dismissed in the second half following a clash with Tiote."
Both men will miss the FA Cup quarter-final trip to Everton and the league games against Liverpool and Blackburn either side of it, while Cattermole will also sit out the home clash with QPR on March 24. Both of those guys are hard to replace, but the other players will surely rise to the challenge.
Had we held on in this game for our first clean sheet in a Tyne-Wear derby since 1990, we would be sitting on 8th spot in the Premiership on 36 points. As it is, we are in 12th on 34 points, especially after Fulham’s 5-0 win over Wolves. We have gone 3 games without a win now and now need some more points on the board.
Somehow winning at the Sports Direct Arena though would not have been like winning at St. James’, and for once I agree with the Newcastle fans about that. My Tyneside counterpart Marc Duffy has been a bit quiet recently but I am sure he will also have something to say on that topic.
©Lars J.S. Knutsen