IT WAS a picture-perfect script for the comfort of Sunday afternoon television fare.
Few would begrudge Fraizer Campbell his stint in the camera lens after such a lengthy hiatus from first-team affairs, deservedly hogging proceedings in the aftermath, rather than the post-mortem reflecting on another of Sunderland’s bespoke derby disappointments.
But a Kodak moment should have arrived far earlier in an absorbing, if not particularly high quality, Wear-Tees tussle as two best buds lined up shoulder to shoulder in the Stadium of Light tunnel.
The opportunity for Lee Cattermole to utter a provocative, tongue-in-cheek remark to Middlesbrough skipper Matthew Bates never materialised though, the suited and booted Sunderland captain watching on forlornly from his executive box.
If a replay does provide any solace, it’s that Julio Arca can feature in front of the supporters who won his heart and Cattermole has a chance of recovering from a hamstring strain to prove a point to his brethren Teessiders.
Even the bussed-in Boro supporters missed Cattermole’s presence yesterday – chanting “Where is Lee Cattermole?” midway through the first half in the absence of their pantomime villain.
But no one missed the 23-year-old more than Sunderland’s midfield, as the control and rigorously well-drilled team shape which has become characteristic of O’Neill’s transformation on Wearside, seemed to vanish in Cattermole’s absence.
Cattermole has been re-born under O’Neill, becoming the influential figure he has threatened to blossom into during fits and starts of his Sunderland career.
But without him, Sunderland looked rudderless, unable to ever genuinely gain the upper hand on Boro’s make-do formation.
The absence of the injured Nicky Bailey and suspended pair Kevin Thomson and Arca forced Boro boss Tony Mowbray to shuffle his pack accordingly into a 4-3-3.
Sunderland never got to grips with it.
Attacking focal point Lukas Jutkiewicz gave John O’Shea a torrid time in the physical battle, the stand-in Sunderland skipper tellingly fluffing three attempts to head clear under pressure from Boro’s new signing, before Barry Robson buried the ball beyond Simon Mignolet.
Marvin Emnes and Scott McDonald both caused butterflies to flutter among Sunderland’s nervy backline as they floated in behind Boro’s full debutant, leading to shanked distribution throughout from the home defence.
But it was the compact midfield trio of Robson, Rhys Williams and Faris Haroun who proved pivotal in ensuring Boro remained in the hat for the fifth round, even if it wasn’t the victory which they could so easily have recorded.
Shorn of Cattermole’s organisational presence, Sunderland lacked stature, protection for the back four or crucially some physicality in the midfield battle.
Boro’s central trio, buoyed by the prospect of testing themselves against Premier League opposition, were never going to shirk the chance to chase and harry at every opportunity and the pressing game seemed to worry Sunderland.
Haroun and Williams pursued everything with fervour, charging into challenges and out-muscling their loftier opponents, while Robson provided a touch of poise and composure – even if his good work was outdone by the most calamitous of clangers.
On a pitch which presented worries over the ball rolling true, Sunderland’s midfield were panicky when a Boro shirt arrived in close proximity and possession continued to be cheaply surrendered to only intensify the anxiety among the home faithful.
No-one was present to mop up the danger in front of Sunderland’s back-line and as Boro increasingly went direct towards Jutkiewicz, the visitors gathered more and more of his knock-downs.
It wasn’t just from a defensive aspect that Cattermole was missed.
Without the solid platform in the middle of the park, Stephane Sessegnon became suitably starved of possession and was forced to ease his hunger by hunting deep to see any of the ball.
In the opening 20 minutes, when he twice skinned Robson, Sessegnon struck fear into Boro hearts and looked a cut above Sunderland’s Championship neighbours.
But the Benin international became an increasingly anonymous figure, forced to attempt the impossible in order to make an impression on the game.
As Sunderland improved after the break and began to create some semblance of momentum, one of their midfield men finally shone as James McClean found space and took advantage of Tony McMahon’s too liberal marking.
With Danny Coyne and goalkeeping replacement Connor Ripley left in no-man’s land by McClean’s deliveries, Boro’s defenders bailed Mowbray’s men out with several superb last-gasp interventions.
But it would have been harsh on Boro to be deprived of the possibility of a fifth round tie with Arsenal and in truth, neither side will be too distressed at the prospect of meeting again at the Riverside on Tuesday week.
At least that gives Cattermole a window of opportunity for what would be a most-welcome return.