Fabio Borini casts shadow over Sunderland’s stroll with Darlington 1883

Pre-season friendly, SAFC play Darlington FC at Bishop Auckland.
Pre-season friendly, SAFC play Darlington FC at Bishop Auckland.
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IT WAS the holiday snap no-one on Wearside wanted to see.

The picture on social media yesterday of Fabio Borini boarding Liverpool’s private jet for their pre-season trip to America immediately sparked panic among Sunderland’s faithful that their hopes of re-signing the popular Italian had been scuppered.

Without wishing to slip into Scouse stereotypes though, there has to be an element of “calm down, calm down” here.

The reports which emerged from Italy on Saturday night suggesting that Borini had “rejected” Sunderland’s advances are not thought to have any substance whatsoever.

Liverpool were also briefing reporters earlier in the day that Borini, who started the pre-season friendly at Preston, would be travelling to the US as planned.

As Brendan Rodgers stressed prior to that encounter at Deepdale, Borini is - for the moment - still a Liverpool player.

Certainly, Gus Poyet didn’t seem racked by anxiety over Borini following the conclusion of Sunderland’s pre-season opener against Darlington 1883, and his words hinted at the need for a patient approach over putting the finishes touches to the £14million deal.

“We have done the steps that we needed to do properly, and now we are waiting. We want to do things the right way,” he said, while tellingly avoiding answering when he expected to hold talks with Borini.

The 23-year-old himself is thought to be keen on returning to Wearside, yet if he harbours any doubts, the 1,500 or so travelling contingent at Bishop Auckland’s Heritage Park provided a taste of what lies in store for Borini if he does sign.

Within minutes of Sunderland’s friendly programme beginning, Borini’s name was being chanted.

Those in attendance couldn’t have cared less about whether Borini’s fee is inflated or if it is simply the latest example of the lopsided prices in the British market this summer.

Signing Borini would be a statement of intent from Sunderland and immediately placate supporters who have grown twitchy over the lack of incomings at the Stadium of Light.

It would be similarly welcomed by Poyet, who has made no secret of his desire to capture the former Chelsea youngster permanently.

But if Sunderland can equal their club record by landing Borini, it doesn’t mean magic dust is suddenly liberally scattered over the Black Cats’ attacking threat.

Borini is not a Messi or Ronaldo figure, capable of turning a game on his own. Neither has he yet shown that he is capable of being as prolific as a Darren Bent or Kevin Phillips.

What Borini is, is the ultimate team player; an unselfish figure who never stops running to help his colleagues, while possessing reliability and composure when he gets the ball himself.

If he signs, Sunderland will need goal threats from elsewhere, principally from both Steven Fletcher and Connor Wickham.

Seeing the pair net three between them was arguably the most heartening aspect of what was truthfully a stroll on Saturday against a Darlington side still in the formative years of their re-birth and lying seven divisions below Sunderland.

Fletcher endured the most miserable of seasons last year, yet after returning to training this summer a week ahead of schedule, a brace of tap-ins at Bishop Auckland’s Heritage Park will have done him the power of good.

They were both a case of right place, right time after finishing off bright work from the youngsters in Sunderland’s ranks.

The 13th minute opener came after Duncan Watmore, thrust into an unfamiliar right-back role, dinked the ball down the right-hand channel of the penalty area for trialist Max Clayton to run onto.

Out-of-contract Crewe frontman Clayton pulled it back and after taking an age, Fletcher tucked it away.

Seven minutes later, academy product George Honeyman played a slick one-two with El-Hadji Ba before pulling it back for Fletcher to produce an almost carbon-copy finish.

Fletcher would have had a hat-trick if it hadn’t been for a smart double save from Darlington stopper Peter Jameson, as Sunderland kept possession neatly without really racing through the gears.

Darlington frontman Graeme Armstrong hit the woodwork with a near-post header, while Ba brought another good stop out of Jameson on the stroke of half-time, before Poyet changed his entire XI.

Out of that side from the opening 45 minutes, it was the youngsters who notably stood out.

Ba, Honeyman and particularly Watmore - considering he was deployed at right-back - were all full of energy and ideas, as was Clayton, who is surely worth a sustained look during pre-season.

Debutant Billy Jones also gave a taste of what to expect this season by regularly bombing forward from left-back.

Forgotten man Cabral was tidy, yet as with second half substitutes Alfred N’Diaye and Modibo Diakite, had the air of a player who knows he is on his way this summer.

Poyet’s decision to change his entire side at the interval was a predictable one and as with Fletcher, Wickham looked a striker desperate to get on the scoresheet.

There is a different air surrounding the England Under-21 international after his huge contribution towards Sunderland’s survival.

He has the confidence which stems from finally proving himself in the Premier League.

Like Fletcher, Wickham could easily have boasted a more handsome individual tally as he troubled the Darlington back-line with power and pace.

He set up Sunderland’s third just after the re-start when he back-heeled N’Diaye’s pass into the path of Emanuele Giaccherini, who swept the ball home.

And then after a couple of near misses, he found the net himself after keeping the lively and positive Charis Mavrias’ attempted chip in play before thrashing a shot beyond keeper Mark Bell.

Darlington pulled one back in the 73rd minute when Wes Brown trod on the ball 10 yards out, and name-sake Gary Brown sent Costel Pantilimon the wrong way from point-blank range.

But the best goal of the afternoon came in the final 10 minutes when Lee Cattermole’s blocked shot came out to Jordi Gomez, who thrashed the ball in off the bar.

Bosman signing Gomez produced a couple of sublime defence-splitting passes inside the Darlington right-back for Sunderland left-back David Ferguson to run onto.

The Spaniard looks a seamless fit for Poyet’s philosophy.

So too, as supporters saw last season, is Borini.

No matter how Sunderland fare in sterner tests this week against Carlisle and Hartlepool, it will be Borini’s fate which keeps them captivated at the start of these pre-season friendlies.

DARLINGTON (first half): Jameson, Brown, Hunter, Hatch, Walker, Mitchell, Galbraith, Portas, Purewal, Thompson, Armstrong.

Second Half: Bell, Brown, Hunter, White, Galbraith (Walker 49), Fisher, Mitchell (Cocks 79), Portas, Hopson, Purewal, Hatch (Fryatt 74).

SUNDERLAND: (first half): Mannone, Watmore, O’Shea, Roberge, Jones, Cabral, Honeyman, Larsson, Ba, Clayton, Fletcher.

Second Half: Pantilimon, Mavrias, Brown, Diakite, Ferguson, Cattermole, Moberg-Karlsson, N’Diaye, Giaccherini, Gomez, Wickham.