Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Sessegnon’s the dazzling inspiration

Stephane Sessegnon celebrates scoring the first goal.
Stephane Sessegnon celebrates scoring the first goal.
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SEX ON FIRE was the first track to reverberate from the away dressing room after Sunderland’s euphoric players returned from saluting 2,000 equally ecstatic supporters.

There were plenty of smiles and plenty of hugs as the volume dial on the stereo was ramped up and up.

Without wishing to plummet to the level of tabloid punnery though, Sess was the one on fire for the Black Cats, in surely Sunderland’s most crucial derby success since 1990.

In the final days of Martin O’Neill’s reign, the deposed Black Cats boss desperately shuffled his pack to restore Stephane Sessegnon’s joie de vivre.

For a game or three, shifting Sessegnon out wide looked to have produced the twinkle toes of last season – the Benin international providing the inspiration for near-miss comebacks against Arsenal and West Brom, while grabbing the equaliser against Fulham.

But, swiftly, Sessegnon fell prey to the same problems which have hindered Adam Johnson.

Sunderland’s build-up play was so stodgy and so predictable that, by the time the ball reached the flanks, Sessegnon was forced to conjure miracles to meander his way past the gaggle of defenders surrounding him.

Almost by default, Paolo Di Canio has restored Sessegnon to the role behind the striker, with only one orthodox frontman available, other than rookie Mikael Mandron.

But that is not all Di Canio has restored.

The shackles were lifted off Sessegnon yesterday as he returned to that mesmeric presence of last year, to the point where he was one of the prime differences between the sides.

Perhaps it was the motivation of being left in tears in the away dressing room last March after his penalty for the petulant reaction to Cheik Tiote ultimately cost Sunderland victory.

But Sessegnon was back to his elusive best in the St James’s sunshine.

In-form Newcastle striker Papiss Cisse was hardly starved of service after twice being denied by stunning Simon Mignolet saves and then incorrectly by the flag of linesman Darren Cann.

Yet Alan Pardew’s side didn’t have anyone effectively probing or orchestrating in front of Sunderland’s defence in the same manner as Sessegnon.

January arrival Moussa Sissoko was full of hustle and bustle, but too often was operating in wide areas, while the big hope for a Magpies comeback, Hatem Ben Arfa, simply wasn’t fit.

Compare that with Sessegnon, who consistently put Newcastle’s defence on the back foot by digging his way out of tight spots, turning and bursting away.

The 28-year-old made a mockery of Jonas Gutierrez when he shrugged off the Argentine’s crude attempts to bring him down before squeezing the ball into the bottom corner.

That opening goal handed Sessegnon a massive boost and the spark he offered on the counter-attack from then on ensured Newcastle were unable to establish a base camp in Sunderland’s half, particularly during a 20-minute spell of pressure after the break.

But yesterday wasn’t just about Sessegnon or the quality of strikes from his fellow scorers Johnson and David Vaughan.

It wasn’t even just about Di Canio, despite the Italian instantly going into Sunderland legend with a display of wild celebration which will require an industrial supply of Daz Automatic to remove the grass stains from his club suit.

This was a victory for the collective.

As a group, Sunderland boasted more determination, more hunger and more will-to-win than a Newcastle side devoid of energy or inspiration.

Each of the 14 players in red and white played their part; from the seamless introduction of Jack Colback in a completely unfamiliar right-back role to the subdued James McClean, who made the interception and feed for Sessegnon’s opener.

Ironically, five of O’Neill’s signings – one of the major criticisms of Di Canio’s predecessor – made key contributions.

Di Canio spent 30 seconds talking with Johnson before kick-off after the teams emerged, and the winger earned the ire of his manager on a couple of occasions during that first half with cheap giveaways.

But a goal of such unbridled quality has suddenly transformed Johnson from underperformer to folk hero. Full stop.

There was no debut goal for Johnson’s former Middlesbrough team-mate Danny Graham. Yet neither could anyone on Wearside level an accusation of black and white derby loyalty to the boyhood Newcastle fan, as was the case with Michael Chopra four years ago.

This was by some distance Graham’s best showing in a Sunderland shirt, as he looked a far sharper, far more physical presence in leading the line.

From the off, Graham was intent on giving Newcastle’s centre-halves a testing afternoon, charging towards high balls from a wide starting position and dominating the aerial battle.

Far too often in recent seasons, Magpies defender Fabricio Coloccini has been the stand-out performer in this fixture, but his replacement, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, toiled against Graham.

The £5million striker was able to bully the French international, rolling him far too easily 10 minutes before the break before scuffing a low shot at Tim Krul.

Time and again, Graham epitomised Sunderland’s determination too by charging backwards and preventing the utterly ineffective Yohan Cabaye from having time on the ball and dictating the pattern of the game.

Two of the other major success stories were more predictable ones, in Carlos Cuellar and Danny Rose.

Cuellar suffered a dramatic dip in form at the tail end of 2012, but he started the season in imposing form alongside John O’Shea and that has by some distance been Sunderland’s best central defensive partnership of the campaign.

Both centre-halves threw themselves at crosses and such was their dominance in the air, that they completely subdued Shola Ameobi after the half-time introduction of the derby nemesis.

Although fatigue caught up with Cuellar midway through the second half, the Spaniard played his part and even replacement Kader Mangane showed no sign of hesitation after a belated Sunderland debut.

And, as has been the case for the majority of his season-long loan, Rose shone.

Four times, Magpies right-back Mathieu Debuchy attempted to bomb beyond Rose down the right and four times, the on-loan Spurs man got his body in the way and shepherded the ball behind.

Yoan Gouffran met with the same fate as he tried to use his forward momentum on the counter-attack, only for Rose to break out the after-burners, out-pace him and calmly play the ball back to Mignolet.

But of all O’Neill’s signings, perhaps it was Alfred N’Diaye – together with central midfield partner Seb Larsson – who took the unsung hero prize.

Newcastle’s strengths lie in the middle of the park; Tiote, Cabaye and Sissoko were a formidable trio of opponents for Sunderland’s makeshift pair who have struggled to convince as a double act since being thrust together in February.

But it was the dogged duo of N’Diaye and Larsson who dominated.

Sunderland won the 50-50s, pounced on the second balls and got their heads up to pick out an option on the counter-attack.

The credit for that, the defensive resilience and the devastating finishing, ultimately goes to Sunderland’s players themselves.

But the catalyst for the change has inevitably been Di Canio.

Last week, the Italian spoke of the derby counting for 2,000 games and there was a sense that, at long last in this fixture, Sunderland’s players grasped the occasion.

It couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment, with victory giving the Wearsiders genuine momentum in the relegation battle, while Stoke are now the prime sinking ship of the top flight.

Two wins are still needed and a visit from Champions League-chasing bogey team Everton provides plenty of potential to poop the party.

But for a fiery character who has persistently preached the importance of unity in just two weeks at the Stadium of Light, the sound of supporters, players and staff celebrating wildly together will have been music to Di Canio’s ears, however loud the stereo.

Twitter @youngsunecho