Chris Young’s derby analysis: Time to recognise the Magpie Slayer a.k.a Adam Johnson

Sunderland players celebrate as Jack Colback looks distraught
Sunderland players celebrate as Jack Colback looks distraught
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ONCE UPON a time, there was a big, bad giant who lauded it over Wearside with almost unprecedented annoyance.

For 36 Premier League games of the season, Shola Ameobi was either injured or hopelessly inconsistent.

But when it came to Sunderland, it was like he’d taken some magic beans; only Jackie Milburn managing more than Ameobi’s seven in 12 outings against the Black Cats.

The era of the Mackem Slayer has gone though.

Now it’s the turn of the Magpie Slayer.

Adam Johnson probably causes more discussion than any other current Sunderland player. Does he work hard enough? Does he offer enough? Does he fit into Gus Poyet’s system?

Invariably though, Johnson makes some contribution when Sunderland do put the ball in the back of the net, and that is not necessarily the easiest task in a team drilled in defending and hitting the opposition on the counter-attack.

While Johnson may not be the Messi-figure Sunderland fans perhaps hoped he would be, he remains the Black Cats’ most creative force.

Above all, he understands the meaning of this most meaningful of games and he comes alive in it.

Johnson is proving to be Newcastle’s nemesis and he is taking his place in Sunderland folklore as a consequence after three successive goals at St James’s.

It didn’t look like he was going to be after he wasted the third of Sunderland’s glorious opportunities to break the deadlock.

But the determination to ride a couple of fouls – when he could easily have gone down and killed time for a draw – and hit Newcastle on the break with devastating consequences was a moment of festive magic for Sunderland.

For all those who have accused Johnson of not caring, just look at his face in those delirious celebrations on the St James’s Park touchline.

Credit to Poyet, too, for having a re-think and opting to take off Connor Wickham, rather than Johnson. It was one of those moments where managers strike it lucky.

The great thing about this current Sunderland crop though is that they all recognise the importance of the derby.

Watching the players perform “Klinsmann” dives after the final whistle when it was only the 3,000 Sunderland fans left in St James’s Park will only strengthen the bond between dressing room and terraces.

That relationship had been threatened by separation at Southampton at October.

Now, it’s been well and truly reconciled.

After years of let-downs and embarrassments in the derby, the pendulum remains stuck fast in scarcely believable fashion.

That’s down to experienced professionals buying into the importance of the game and producing when the stakes are at their highest.

In an absorbing end-to-end encounter, when it was always going to be a case of schoolyard “next goal wins” in the final half-hour, Sunderland made sure they got it.

While there was an admirably respectful atmosphere between the two sets of supporters after the tragic summer deaths of Newcastle fans John Alder and Liam Sweeney, there was still passion and determination from Poyet’s men.

That’s what the derby should be all about.

The glaring misses of Wickham – who could easily have had a first-half hat-trick – Johnson and Gomez didn’t put them off, they just kept plugging away in search of the winner.

Even the loss of left-back Anthony Reveillere before kick-off didn’t throw Sunderland.

Think back to Roy Keane’s first game as Sunderland manager at St James’s and how flat the Black Cats were in that 2-0 defeat after late injuries to Jonny Evans and Phil Bardsley.

There was none of that yesterday.

Yes, Sunderland were nervy in the opening 10 minutes and committed a couple of rash fouls in dangerous areas – Lee Cattermole’s coming after just 10 seconds on the clock.

Yet when the Wearsiders settled down, they coped remarkably from the late reshuffle – John O’Shea turning back the clock with an imperious display at left-back (albeit Newcastle didn’t run at him anywhere near enough) and Sebastian Coates superb alongside the equally solid Wes Brown in the middle.

Far from the player who was terrorised by Sergio Aguero, Coates looked like an assured performer after a torrid time with injuries over the last 18 months.

It needed a couple of magnificent saves from Costel Pantilimon to keep Newcastle at bay.

It needed Ayoze Perez to waste a very good second-half chance and Adam Armstrong to fail to spot the run of an unmarked Moussa Sissoko too.

But, given the chances Sunderland wasted at the other end, Newcastle could hardly brag that it was one-way traffic, despite Alan Pardew gambling and introducing a succession of attacking options to end his unwanted derby record.

Other than a 10-minute spell midway through the second half, when Sissoko came alive, Sunderland controlled proceedings.

Much of that was down to Seb Larsson.

While the attention may have centred on Jack Colback’s reunion with his former club, Larsson completely outshone the Tynesider, who was fortunate not to be dismissed in the first half when he was already on a disciplinary tightrope with a yellow card to his name.

In truth, Colback was pretty average; certainly compared to the influence he exerted in February’s corresponding fixture when wearing Sunderland yellow.

Larsson never let Newcastle settle in the middle of the park. He was magnificent.

The Swede looks a couple of yards quicker these days and his confidence is beginning to soar from his recent displays – the pass for the excellent Steven Fletcher’s volley which crashed against the top of the bar was sublime.

Larsson epitomised the greater unity and team cohesion in Sunderland’s ranks, compared to the Magpies, but that still needed to culminate in a win.

Too many times this season, Sunderland have been the dominant force, yet failed to make that pressure count and have ended up having to settle for a draw.

But, after four months of a campaign in which Sunderland fans have been split between glass half-full and glass half-empty, they can finally enjoy a full pint.

Should Sunderland win on Boxing Day against a Hull side who look utterly devoid of confidence at present, then it really will begin to look rosy for Poyet’s men.

Suddenly, all those draws won’t look so frustrating. They’ll look like the hallmark of a resilient, difficult-to-beat side.

After the confidence boost of four successive derby wins for the first time in history, you have to fancy Sunderland.

But the visit of Steve Bruce’s side can wait.

Fittingly after a record fourth successive win, Wearside can enjoy four days of round-the-clock Christmas festivities.

NEWCASTLE: Alnwick, Janmaat, Coloccini, S Taylor, Dummett, Sissoko, Colback, Tiote (Cisse 75), Gouffran (Armstrong 59), Perez, Ameobi (Cabella 89). Subs not used: Woodman, Haidara, Williamson, Riviere. Booked: Coloccini (8), Tiote (24), Colback (25)

SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Coates, O’Shea, Brown, Vergini, Cattermole (Bridcutt 70), Larsson (Rodwell 90), Gomez, Johnson, Wickham (Buckley 81), Fletcher. Subs not used: Altidore, Alvarez, Mannone. Booked: Coates (2), Wickham (39), Cattermole (56), O’Shea (69)

Attendance: 52,315. Referee: Anthony Taylor

Twitter @YoungSunEcho

* Don’t miss today’s derby special souvenir Sunderland Echo – celebrating the Black Cats’ four-in-a-row triumph