THE talk among Sunderland supporters after yesterday’s match would have focused on how their team failed to beat ten men.
However, the true story of this latest instalment of our beloved derby is that, in fact, they couldn’t beat just one man.
That man was Fabricio Coloccini.
Newcastle United boss Alan Pardew compared his captain to Bobby Moore after a stunning performance from the Argentinian for which no superlative could be over the top.
This was Coloccini’s first game back in almost a month and he put his body and soul on the line at the Stadium of Light as Newcastle United, reduced to ten men after Cheick Tioté’s 25th-minute red card, came within a few minutes of a famous win.
Eventually cramp forced him off the pitch on 78 minutes.
Not long afterwards, Sunderland scored from a set-piece when, for once, the Newcastle defence got themselves in a mess.
Coincidence? Not a chance.
While it is impossible to say for certain whether Sunderland would have conjured up an equaliser had Coloccini managed to struggle on until the end, it is fair to suggest Newcastle would have had a far greater opportunity of taking three points from Wearside if he hadn’t succumbed.
He wasn’t in the mood to give Sunderland a thing, aided by his central defensive partner Mike Williamson who was another star.
Steven Fletcher wasn’t given a sniff of the ball, never mind a goal, by his shadow in the first half. The Scot is terrific in the air. He won just one header in that opening 45 minutes.
Every cross and pass was cut out by the United skipper. He didn’t even have to make a proper tackle, so good was his reading of the game.
Because he snuffed out Sunderland’s major goal-threat, the home side were reduced to shooting from distance, even with their numerical advantage.
However, Coloccini’s two best moments came in the second half.
Having won a header from Fletcher just outside the penalty box, he killed the ball on his right foot without letting it bounce and then he played a clever pass to James Perch instead of booting a clearance up the park.
It was a brilliant example of the art of defending.
Then came a piece of play which was brave, intelligent and summed up the guy’s afternoon.
Steven Taylor was actually getting ready to replace his South American team-mate – Coloccini had already received treatment for cramp – but there was no way the man who was about to come off was going to shirk his duties.
It was in the 76th minute, the score was still 1-0, Sunderland won a corner that wasn’t cleared and the ball was bouncing about, just waiting to be hit.
So Coloccini took charge of the situation, dribbled out of the box and took on two Sunderland defenders for pace, eventually winning a throw-in.
He could hardly walk by this stage.
It also should be mentioned that, when Newcastle goalkeeper Tim Krul spilled a cross midway through the second-half, with Louis Saha ready to pounce, it was the No2 who got his foot to the ball first and the danger was cleared.
This was arguably his best performance for Newcastle United and it almost won his team a match which, while not a classic, you couldn’t take your eyes off the action for a second.
“It is pointless to try to downplay the importance of today’s game.” So said Sunderland chairman and owner Ellis Short in his programme notes.
It was far more important for Sunderland than Newcastle and even with the point it was not a great day for Martin O’Neill’s side.
They started appallingly slowly and were behind after 144 seconds as the Sunderland defence stood around as Yohan Cabaye swept the ball in the net. O’Neill saw his side enjoy the majority of possession but they never looked like scoring. The game changed with Tioté’s red card. He was late, high and hard on Fletcher. He was also stupid.
Referee Martin Atkinson had spotted that Jack Colback was holding his shirt, so there was no need for the Ivory Coast man to lunge at Fletcher in a nothing area of the pitch, with the whistle for a free-kick in his favour already having been blown. You could argue it was only a yellow, although for my money the ref got it right. What is not up for debate was that it was a dreadful tackle.
Sunderland, though, could not take advantage. While Coloccini was excellent, it is a disgrace a home side in a derby couldn’t force the opposition goalkeeper into a save worthy of the name.
The equaliser, a header that deflected off Demba Ba, should only paper over the cracks. Sunderland, on the evidence so far, have a bit to go before they can be considered a good side. They are a mid-table team, nothing more or less.
They had the best part of 70 minutes, when you include injury time, to put Newcastle to the sword. They failed dismally.
There was only going to be one winner at 1-1, but there was no time for Sunderland to sneak a second.