Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Colback so solid back in Sunderland’s midfield

Jack Colback.
Jack Colback.
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A DECADE of dedicated development at the Academy of Light has banished any conspiracy theories over Jack Colback’s Tyneside roots.

It’s a dead issue.

Killingworth-born Colback bears none of those Michael Chopra-esque traits of playing for Sunderland through gritted teeth.

In the foot race to celebrate Fabio Borini’s potentially season-defining stunner, Colback was only just behind Jozy Altidore before the on-loan Liverpool striker was mobbed by both team-mates and delirious supporters.

But Colback firmly demonstrated his allegiance yesterday with a performance of admirable maturity, as he kept his head in the white-hot, scrappy, ugly environment of derby day.

If Borini was undoubtedly the toast of hostelries around Wearside late into last night, then Colback was very much the unsung hero.

As usual, Colback was not the flashy performer who immediately caught the eye, yet he was the ideal specimen for a game Sunderland realistically couldn’t afford to lose if they were to boast any hope of remaining in the Premier League.

Gus Poyet has clearly made a deliberate attempt to put players back in the most familiar of surroundings to give Sunderland sufficient traction to climb the Premier League table.

Not one of Sunderland’s starting XI yesterday was out of position. It’s a long time since that could be said.

In fairness, using Colback at left-back was not the most daft of Paolo Di Canio’s ploys.

The 24-year-old rarely gets beaten for pace when used there, is deceptively hard to knock off the ball and was arguably one of Sunderland’s more consistent performers during Di Canio’s six-game spell at the start of the campaign.

But while he would publicly insist that he was happy to play wherever the manager told him, Colback always wanted to establish himself in the middle of the park.

That remains the environment where he feels most comfortable.

It was a big call from Poyet to play him there yesterday. The new head coach could easily have turned to the returning Ki Sung-Yeung, particularly as the South Korean has impressed on the training field.

But in a midfield of three North-Easterners, Colback needed no introduction to the rigours of derby day and perfectly grasped Poyet’s requirements for his central midfield pair.

Colback consistently won the 50-50s, refused to be outmuscled by Cheick Tiote and Moussa Sissoko and most importantly, provided a cool head in possession.

When the ball was predominantly hooked upfield or the centre-piece for a game of head tennis, Sunderland needed someone to get it down and play it carefully.

Colback did that and much more so than midfield partner Lee Cattermole, who was guilty of too many over-ambitious passes, particularly in the first half.

The pair worked seamlessly in tandem though, as did Sunderland’s entire side as an offensive and defensive unit.

Those accusations of being “gutless” after the Swansea rout had stung the Sunderland dressing room and Poyet’s side were eager to take the battle to the Magpies from the off.

They boasted far more enthusiasm for the fight than Alan Pardew’s lacklustre troops.

The Black Cats hunted in packs, never allowing Newcastle time to settle in possession or produce any sort of fluency.

Newcastle were taken aback by Sunderland’s hunger and after Steven Fletcher’s timely opener, it took the Magpies until midway through the first half to regain their composure.

Even then though, Pardew’s side only boasted a powder-puff goal threat.

The lack of pace in Sunderland’s back four was never exposed as the Black Cats sat deep to prevent ineffective pair Loic Remy and Hatem Ben Arfa getting in behind.

Poyet ensured an insurance policy for two out-and-out frontmen too by tucking Seb Larsson in 10 yards from the right-hand touchline, with Fletcher ever ready to drop back onto the right.

It enabled the workaholic Swede the opportunity to close down Newcastle’s central trio without fear of getting exposed by left-back David Santon bombing forward.

Newcastle were limited to efforts from distance - albeit Shola Ameobi and Yohan Cabaye both went close from range in the second half - and there was even an element of fortune, rather than precision around the equaliser.

Ben Arfa’s cross come shot was a scuffed one and Mathieu Debuchy benefited from a dozing Adam Johnson, who had ironically been diligent with his tracking back during the first half.

Not even tiring legs and an evident lack of match fitness could dim Sunderland’s hunger for the battle.

Midway through the second half, there looked like being only one winner, with Andrea Dossena - who had been very assured during the first half - the dogged Phil Bardsley, Cattermole and Fletcher all hitting empty on the fuel gauge.

Bafflingly though, Newcastle didn’t go for the jugular.

They remained content to keep possession and go sideways, rather than really hurting Sunderland, who kicked again with such enormous rewards in the final 10 minutes.

Will such battling qualities alone be sufficient for Sunderland to remain in the Premier League though?

No other Premier League game is reminiscent of the North East derby.

While two of Poyet’s principle two creative players Ki and Emanuele Giaccherini could logically be left on the bench for an all-out battle, a subtler approach will be needed to get the nine, 10, 11 or 12 victories which Sunderland still require.

Saturday’s trip to Hull City may not fall into that category though and those scrapping qualities are likely to be just the ticket against Steve Bruce’s men.

Sunderland can at least head to the KC Stadium with renewed self-belief and without that statistic of no Premier League victories ringing in the ears.

As the Black Cats proved after victory on Tyneside in April, there can be a huge bounce that stems from triumphing in the derby and if Sunderland can beat Bruce’s boys, survival suddenly won’t seem such an insurmountable task.

Arguably just as importantly though, Sunderland have begun the process of healing the fractious relationship with their supporters.

It began before kick-off when owner Ellis Short finally admitted some culpability for the club’s dire start to the campaign.

“The club has been in turmoil as a result of the change of head coach so early in the season,” said Short in his programme notes.

“I have to take the blame for that. Clearly at least one of the decisions I made over the last several months was the wrong one.”

But then more significantly, it continued with the wild celebrations which followed Borini’s wonderful goal.

Sunderland fans needed some hope and they got more than they could possibly have imagined.