THERE was a school reunion aspect to proceedings at the Stadium of Light last night as three participants in the Wear-Tees derby faced their boyhood mentors.
But there was no question of who was head boy after the most stinging indictment yet of Sunderland’s powder-puff attack.
At the heart of a Middlesbrough performance which had everything Sunderland lacked – urgency, direction and a goal threat – was the lad from Fencehouses, the one who played a pivotal role in getting the Black Cats back to the promised land five-and-a-half years ago.
Grant Leadbitter was clearly emotional as he left the pitch after a thoroughly deserved victory for the Teessiders – getting down on his knees and kissing the Stadium of Light turf where the ashes of his father, Brian, were scattered during the midfielder’s stint in red and white.
But Leadbitter wanted to prove a point last night and had the hunger to show that perhaps after all, Sunderland dispensed with his services a touch too quickly.
Of course, in a one-off cup game – particularly with bragging rights at stake – it’s easy to turn on the style, and let’s not forget that after showing his worth for Sunderland in the Championship, Leadbitter was unable to ever hold down a regular starting spot for the Black Cats in the top flight.
But the 26-year-old was the star of the show, controlling proceedings and continually picking holes in a Sunderland defence that looked uncharacteristically fragile.
After an opening 10 minutes of pressure from the hosts when Boro scrapped to retain parity, Leadbitter quickly emerged as the deciding factor in another miserable derby experience for Sunderland.
Alongside equally adept midfield sparring partner Nicky Bailey, Boro’s two middle men outshone the Sunderland duo of David Vaughan and Lee Cattermole.
Leadbitter consistently found space, was calm when closed down by any red and white jerseys and showcased his array of passing with several glorious crossfield balls.
Unlike Sunderland’s tentative players, Leadbitter moved the ball with some incision too, continually servicing the dangerous Ishmael Miller down the channels.
That was particularly crucial in the second half when Leadbitter was able to relieve the pressure on Boro during Sunderland’s overwhelming spells of ineffective possession, by setting the on-loan Nottingham Forest striker away on the counter-attack.
The only blemish on Leadbitter’s performance came on the hour mark, when he dallied on the ball and was caught by Cattermole before the Sunderland skipper fed Stephane Sessegnon, who fired just wide from 25 yards.
But Leadbitter undoubtedly triumphed in the battle with the midfielder from Boro’s production line after a mixed evening for Cattermole, who was never able to exert the influence he has done consistently for Sunderland this season.
In fairness, Cattermole and Vaughan were too often outnumbered in the middle of the park as Faris Haroun tucked inside to form a central trio for Boro, while Sunderland always kept a front four intact.
It meant the Sunderland duo were never able to effectively press Boro in midfield and Leadbitter was allowed the room to manoeuvre the ball so adeptly.
But Cattermole couldn’t impose himself on the game either.
It frustrated the 24-year-old and that boiled over midway through the first half, with a moment of recklessness when he charged deep into Boro territory in an attempt to win the ball back.
Boro manoeuvred the ball into the space Cattermole had vacated, the impressive George Friend eventually whipping in a teasing ball from the left which Miller fluffed at the far post.
Cattermole redeemed himself moments later when he chased back to rob Scott McDonald. But then, in the build-up to McDonald’s goal, Cattermole couldn’t keep up with Haroun and it cost Sunderland dearly.
Sunderland’s skipper still provided a more positive contribution than his former peer on Teesside though as the wayward start to Adam Johnson’s Black Cats career continued.
In the early stages, Johnson looked to be in the mood in his first meeting with Boro since he left the Riverside almost three years ago.
Within the first 90 seconds, Johnson lifted a well-crafted chip over the top of Boro’s defence for Louis Saha to chase onto, before Andre Bikey scampered back to clear the ball behind.
From the resulting corner, Johnson then tested Jason Steele’s reflexes with an inswinger that was viscously heading inside the near post.
Such positive beginnings seemed to encourage Johnson and being on the side of his natural foot suited him too as he got the chance to open up his body and run at ex-Sunderland loanee Justin Hoyte.
At that point, Sunderland had players overlapping, crosses going into the Boro box and some neat one-touch interplay.
But it didn’t last.
And as Johnson was forced to drop deeper and deeper in search of possession, his contribution became increasingly erratic.
Too often, the England winger was either knocked off the ball too easily or lost it needlessly as he attempted to dribble his way out of a dead end.
The exasperation of the crowd only increased further when Johnson drastically over-hit a brace of set pieces in the second half – the sole avenue which looked like bringing Sunderland back into the game.
For all Johnson is struggling to live up to the billing though, Sunderland’s attacking woes are not attributable to individuals.
As a collective, they are vastly under-performing. What looks good on paper is simply not translating into any cohesion on the field and confidence is suffering as a result.
Too many players are standing still and the lack of movement and urgency is making it all too easy for opposition defences to contain the meagre offerings from Martin O’Neill’s men.
It’s not as if sweeping changes will suddenly instil a fresh outlook either. Selection issues aren’t the problem, performances are.
O’Neill needs to find a formula against Aston Villa though because apathy is a very real danger if Sunderland fail to vanquish Paul Lambert’s struggling side this weekend.
Sunderland could do worse than taking a leaf out of the old school and mimicking the hunger of old boy Leadbitter.