DANNY HIGGINBOTHAM was almost an unlikely derby hero after grabbing Sunderland’s opener against Newcastle United in 2007, following the Black Cats’ return to the Premier League.
The defender’s hopes of eternal Sunderland glory were dashed after the Magpies came away with a share of the spoils.
But as the Echo’s CHRIS YOUNG reports, the memory of that adrenaline rush in such a high-stakes encounter is one which remains vivid for Higginbotham.
WITHIN minutes of the final whistle, Danny Higginbotham immediately branded his goal as the “most memorable” of his career.
After sprinting 50 yards, the centre-half had connected with Grant Leadbitter’s cross to head the ball beyond Steve Harper.
Higginbotham proved a trend-setter for Paolo Di Canio by sliding on his knees next to the corner flag, as delirious supporters from the North Stand waltzed onto the pitch to embrace any figures in red and white.
It could – and perhaps should, given the chances Sunderland created – have been a moment of derby folklore; a goal to secure a first ever Stadium of Light success over the Magpies.
But Wearside was forced to wait another 12 months for that honour.
Within 13 minutes of Higginbotham’s opener, James Milner’s cross drifted through a crowded penalty area into the far corner to level proceedings and deny Sunderland victory over the big money, big name signings who were floundering under Sam Allardyce’s reign.
Six years on, Higginbotham still rues Milner’s leveller and the gloss it took off his first Black Cats goal, in a derby which he believes should be held on a par with the Continent’s fiercest rivalries.
“Although it was a goal in the derby, it still wasn’t the winning one,” said Higginbotham, now playing part-time at Conference side Chester, while he looks to develop his media career.
“We had plenty of chances and their goal was a bit of a freak – was it a cross or was it a shot?
“We were a team that had just been promoted whereas Newcastle had been in the Premier League a long time, but we played well enough to win the game.
“It was a great feeling, especially in a game like that which is one of the best derbies in Europe.
“For me, it’s up there as one of the best derbies and I’ve played in a few.”
He added: “I remember the goal well.
“They were on the attack, we cleared the ball and Kenwyne (Jones) put pressure on one of their defenders (David Rozenhal) and it went out for a corner.
“The majority of both teams were in our half and there was only Grant and Kenwyne who were anywhere near it.
“They both ran to take the corner and I kept going from halfway with no-one prepared for it.
“Full credit to Grant who took it short and delivered it right into my path.
“It was brilliant. It was a good job the ground was wet and I slid because by that time the fans had come onto the pitch!”
Higginbotham was to make just 13 more appearances for Sunderland before he returned to Stoke for a fraction of the £2.5million fee the Black Cats had paid the Potters 12 months earlier.
The Mancunian had enjoyed a solid, if unspectacular, campaign at the Stadium of Light in Sunderland’s successful first year back in the Premier League.
But the 34-year-old believes he didn’t do himself justice for Roy Keane’s side after making more than 60 top flight starts on his return to the Britannia Stadium.
“People have asked me about why my time at Sunderland did not go as well as I’d have wanted and I can’t put my finger on it,” he said.
“It was not down to anything other than me.
“I look back at my time and scored a few goals, including against Middlesbrough and Newcastle, and played more than 20 games for a team that stayed up.
“But I look at things and think I should have done better, particularly as I did really well at Stoke.
“We had just been promoted to the Premier League and staying up is a big task and we did that.
“We didn’t do it overly comfortably, but there were still one or two games to spare and to help the club stay in the Premier League was brilliant.”
While Higginbotham’s brief stint at Sunderland arrived at a time when the club were firmly on an upward curve, his former employers are now plummeting towards the abyss.
Three men have been at the helm during the opening eight games, with new head coach Gus Poyet facing a daunting task to keep the Black Cats in the top flight.
It’s a familiar situation for Higginbotham.
He was at Southampton in 2004-05 when the Saints went through three managers – Paul Sturrock, Steve Wigley and Harry Redknapp.
The result of such instability?
Bottom of the Premiership pile and relegation to the Championship.
“It’s always going to be a struggle when you go through that number of managers,” said Higginbotham.
“When I was at Southampton under Gordon Stracham, we finished eighth and were fifth or sixth the following season at Christmas, and then he left in March.
“We finished 12th under Paul Sturruck, but then the club thought he wasn’t the right man and we had Steve Wigley and Harry Redknapp later in the season before we were relegated.
“You can’t do that, it causes a lot of upheaval.
“Managers want to stamp their own authority on the club and the team.
“Sunderland need continuity and to stabilise, whether that means staying up or getting relegated and starting again under Gus.
“I look at Sunderland’s squad and it is devoid of confidence and that is what football is all about.
“Hopefully that is where Gus can bring them up to scratch.
“Mentally, it is very difficult if you are not scoring goals and conceding them. It’s a recipe for disaster.
“As soon as you concede the first one, you think it is over for you whereas if you score the opener, then at least you’ve got something to hang onto.
“But if you go behind, then that despondency spreads throughout the team.”
How Sunderland could do with an unlikely derby hero like Higginbotham this weekend.