Newcastle 1 Sunderland 1: Chris Young’s verdict

Sunderland celebrate Nicklas Bendtner's goal
Sunderland celebrate Nicklas Bendtner's goal
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WHETHER it was a sense of insecurity at facing a trophy-laden counterpart or a shameless attempt to further endear himself to the “Geordie Nation”, Alan Pardew seemed intent on displaying the uglier side of his character.

The lack of class from either Pardew or assistant John Carver in consistently goading Martin O’Neill and his colleagues on the touchline was the unnecessary aspect of an absorbing derby tussle.

In a game where maturity is in short supply, the two 50-somethings should have known better.

Pardew at least admitted afterwards that he could have been “a bit more grown-up about it”, before bafflingly claiming he wasn’t “taking the moral high ground” – perhaps because he had trodden all over the low ground.

But amid all the Newcastle manager’s flannel, over-the-top fist punching and the coincidentally timed Saturday morning press conference to celebrate contract extensions, one thing the Magpies boss said in the derby furore did hold some resonance.

Beforehand, Pardew had predicted that the midfield tussle would be key to the pattern and outcome of proceedings and, in that respect, he struck his most harmonious chord of the whole weekend.

It was no coincidence that it took Lee Cattermole just 38 seconds to find his way into Mike Dean’s notebook after scything down opposite number Cheik Tiote from behind.

The Sunderland skipper wanted to lay down a marker to the African, send him a clear sign that the Black Cats were here to put up a fight, rather than the humble surrender of their three previous derby meetings.

Admittedly, Cattermole had gone about it all wrong, leaving Dean with little choice than to issue an instant yellow card, even if the 23-year-old adeptly rode the disciplinary tightrope for the remainder of the 90 minutes.

But the precedent set by Cattermole rattled Tiote, who struggled to exert any midfield influence in that opening half, preoccupying himself with retaliating against the upstart visitors, though somehow he wasn’t booked until the 67th minute.

All of the limited football that was produced in the middle of the park in the first half came from the Black Cats, who were the only side with a structure around their approach play.

Newcastle relied upon a direct approach, which reaped little reward of substance, with John O’Shea pocketing wide-eyed derby debutant Papiss Demba Cisse.

After shrewdly taking the sting out of the home crowd by taking their time over set pieces in the opening tussles, Sunderland set the tempo and it revolved around their midfield axis of Cattermole, Craig Gardner and Seb Larsson.

The trio hunted down Newcastle in packs, prizing possession away from the hosts and pouncing on any loose balls before looking for opportunities on the counter-attack to the dangerous Stephane Sessegnon and Nicklas Bendtner, perhaps unsurprisingly thriving in the derby spotlight.

If Larsson, fresher than he had looked in weeks despite suffering from flu, had found a Sunderland head with several teasing crosses, or if Gardner had looked at better options out wide rather than immediately going for goal, those breaks could have produced bigger dividends than Bendtner’s penalty.

Certainly Newcastle could have had few complaints if they were trailing by more than one at the interval.

Tiote and Cabaye were both restricted to deep-lying roles that never worried Sunderland, who were happy to let Newcastle play in front of them rather than worrying about the pace of Demba Ba and Cisse in behind.

Other than Ba’s header on the stroke of half-time which crashed against the bar, it was arguably as comfortable a half, from a defensive point of view, as Sunderland have enjoyed all season.

As he did in August’s corresponding fixture though, Pardew’s half-time tinkering proved decisive after the former West Ham boss introduced the twinkle-toed Hatem Ben Arfa.

The Frenchman provided an elusive outlet on the right which Sunderland struggled to contain and suddenly there was someone capable of getting in behind the full-back and delivering a cross.

It allowed Jonas Gutierrez to push forward on the opposite flank and Sunderland’s comfortable, compact formation looked rattled from the increased tempo and intent of the hosts, even if Newcastle’s greatest threat remained from set pieces.

With Gardner and Cattermole either dragged wide or into their own area to contain the swarming Magpies attack, it allowed Tiote and Cabaye to take their turn to pick up the 50-50s and relaunch the ball into the crowded and often frantically defended goalmouth.

Whether that would have persisted for the entire half is a moot point, given the game hinged on Sessegnon’s dismissal just before the hour mark.

Certainly, the double chance for Larsson and James McClean just before the Benin international’s stray arm onto the collarbone of Tiote – surely trying to earn an audition for a remake of Apocalypse Now – suggested Sunderland could trouble Newcastle on the counter-attack.

But from the moment Sessegnon saw red, Sunderland’s arsenal was nullified.

Without an attacking outlet to relieve the pressure, Sunderland were confined to their own quarters and Newcastle’s midfield set up camp in opposition territory.

It became a matter of “will they or won’t they” find the net as wave after wave of black and white hordes descended on Simon Mignolet’s penalty area.

Mignolet’s spot-kick save from Ba looked to be the defining moment in breaking Magpie hopes of an equaliser. Unsurprisingly, Shola Ameobi thought better of that.

But as the raw dejection of going so close to a first Tyneside success in a decade eventually begins to wane, this blood and thunder encounter should be admired for the fire embodied by Cattermole and Tiote.

The game often bordered on the violent, but Sunderland produced what had been so glaringly absent from their previous three derby meetings – some fight and desperation to win.

Ultimately though, the 1-1 scoreline bore out Pardew’s prediction, Sunderland profiting from dominating the midfield battle in the opening 45 minutes and Newcastle doing likewise after the break.

At least Pardew produced some common sense on a weekend where he seemed to lose control over all his other senses.