ROY KEANE sets foot on Wearside this weekend for the first time since 2008’s winter of discontent.
Few hacks will expect the former Sunderland boss to mingle chirpily in the press room prior to settling himself comfortably alongside fellow pundit Gareth Southgate on the ITV sofa.
But Keane’s return arrives at an apt moment.
For the first 18 months of his reign, Keane was heralded as a red and white deity, taking few wrong turns in propelling Sunderland from the Championship’s basement to Premier League survival.
Martin O’Neill is currently enjoying a similar extended honeymoon period, with the Midas touch even extending to cup draws.
Nothing bursts the myth about the “magic of the cup” more than a half-empty Stadium of Light, for a tie in the early rounds against Football League opposition.
But a clash with Middlesbrough – after Sunderland were ironically paired with Newcastle in the draw rehearsal – has reinvigorated interest in a competition which has been snubbed by Wearside since 2004.
The Stadium of Light will not quite have the electric buzz it should have, given Boro’s measly ticket allocation.
But putting the politics of health and safety aside, the stakes are unusually high for a home fourth round tie.
It’s not just local bragging rights up for grabs – although they could do with a boost after Sunderland’s derby displays over the last two years – a place in the fifth round of the cup could be worth more than usual this season.
With Manchester City, one of Liverpool or Manchester United and one of Arsenal or Aston Villa, all absent from proceedings come the third weekend in February, solid mid-table Premier League sides such as Sunderland have every chance to ruffle a few feathers.
Standing in their way are a Boro side desperate to return to those halcyon days of playing with the big boys.
Boro have been absent from the top table for two-and-a-half years now and are sliding into that pack of former Premier League sides, who become consigned and resigned to Championship football.
But the double lottery of a cup tie and a derby will doubtless give Tony Mowbray’s men heart, not least with the prospect of Sunderland skipper Lee Cattermole lining up against his former employers.
Boro are not a side Sunderland should be fearing though.
Mowbray’s side arguably over-achieved in the opening exchanges of the campaign and with their top six berth under threat from three successive defeats, a play-off spot still has to be regarded as a reasonable objective.
Boro were not too clever at Coventry last weekend – presenting alarming gaps at the back and spurning the opportunities which came their way in the opening 10 minutes.
Their cause tomorrow is not helped either by the absence of suspended duo Julio Arca and Kevin Thomson, who along with injured key man Nicky Bailey, leave Boro desperately light in midfield.
The opportunity is there for Cattermole to dominate proceedings against his hometown club, although it is an intriguing dilemma for O’Neill over who lines up alongside the 23-year-old in the middle of the park.
David Vaughan has done little wrong alongside Cattermole and has started every game under O’Neill.
The ex-Blackpool man has scored two cracking goals and helps to provide a solid buffer of protection in front of the back four.
But Craig Gardner has begun to blossom and his third goal in Sunderland colours last weekend shows the value of his inclusion, particularly when the Black Cats are not blessed with free-scoring strikers.
In the third round at Peterborough, O’Neill squeezed both Vaughan and Gardner into the starting XI with the latter deployed effectively in the hole behind Stephane Sessegnon.
With Nicklas Bendtner sidelined and Sunderland yet to boost their ranks with a January signing, the Sessegnon-Gardner double act is a possibility again. But it is an unlikely one. The system doesn’t bring the most of Sessegnon’s elusive threat, while Connor Wickham’s introduction for Bendtner against Swansea suggests the 18-year-old will continue up front this weekend.
O’Neill has shown little hesitation in including Wickham despite his tender years, handing him a starting berth in his first match in charge against Blackburn after only two days back in training.
Given the way the £8million summer signing performed before two months of stop-start injuries began, he arguably deserves another opportunity to stake his claim.
Like many of those at O’Neill’s disposal, Wickham’s North East derby experience has been limited to August’s defeat at the hands of Newcastle.
But with Sunderland blessed with momentum, confidence and an eagerness to succeed under O’Neill, the bragging rights should be theirs against the lesser-spotted of the two neighbours.
Verdict: Home win