For Sunderland, a decade-long stay in the Premier League will shortly come to an end. Fabio Borini’s comments regarding the lack of “togetherness” in the dressing room, following Sunderland’s 2-2 home draw with West Ham United on 15 April, betrayed a side bereft of any further ideas.
To at least bow out with pride, and achieve a Tees-Wear derby win on hostile turf, Sunderland must now rely on the toughness and resilience of their leaders. Pending no injuries or suspensions, it will be up to Wearside generals, such as John O’Shea and Lee Cattermole, to provide a steely spine and give the Black Cats the best chance to drag their local rivals down with them.
Forebodingly, it was exactly 20 years ago that both sides were relegated from the Premier League, leaving Newcastle as the only representatives of England’s north-east in the top flight in 1997/98. On 19 April 1997, Middlesbrough fell to a 1-0 home defeat against Sunderland, courtesy of Darren Williams’ goal on the stroke of half-time.
Combined with an infamous three-point deduction, for illegally postponing a match against Blackburn, Boro’s fate was all but sealed in that derby defeat.
Two decades on, and Middlesbrough FC once again edges ever closer to the abyss. Defeat to Arsenal in Boro’s latest home game left caretaker manager Steve Agnew’s side six points adrift of 17th-placed Hull with just a single game in hand.
However, from a very localised point of view, Boro have much to play for. Agnew’s men are chasing a first league double over Sunderland since the 2002/03 season. With some bookmakers, Boro are in fact at evens to do achieve that feat over Sunderland and keep the survival fight alive.
Apparently incapable of producing a winning performance, Sunderland’s ineptitude may negate Boro’s own propensity to fail in the final third.
Unsurprisingly, Alvaro Negredo tops the first goalscorer market, with odds at around 7/2 to open the scoring in the 144th Tees-Wear derby, as can be seen if you click through onto bookmakers’ sports markets. His equalising strike, against Arsenal on Easter Monday, gave Boro a glimmer of hope until Mesut Ozil won it for the Gunners.
Bettors may be more tempted to use each side’s profligacy in front of goal to their advantage. As both sides become more jaded, it will be Sunderland at a greater psychological disadvantage, making Boro prime candidates for a late winner. Odds of around 18/1 are, therefore, available for either side to score after the 71st minute
For all the permutations, the situation facing Boro could not be simpler. Should Steve Agnew’s men fail to win the looming derby, the game will – once and for all – be up.