THIRTEEN years ago last month, Kevin Ball watched wide-eyed as he sent the ball hurtling towards his own goal, only for it to crash back off the crossbar.
Sunderland’s second-string coach reminded the press pack at the conclusion of last night’s enthralling derby that it was the first time he had been back to Newcastle on a competitive basis since the Black Cats’ famous 2-1 win in the rain and his narrow escape.
It was an apt link.
Last night was all about near misses for Sunderland’s Under-21s after they spurned a succession of chances, somehow failing to add to Connor Wickham’s brace and missing out on a first victory of the season.
For Martin O’Neill, seated in one of the corporate boxes high in the stands of the Sports Direct Arena, there was the good, the bad and the indifferent to cast his gaze over.
Sunderland used their full allocation of three over-age players for their third outing of the campaign – David Vaughan, Matt Kilgallon and Louis Saha all completing much-needed 90 minutes, while Connor Wickham and Ji Dong-won were also given opportunities.
But the Black Cats could not make their experience count, as they paid the price for their profligacy in front of goal, two moments of soft defending and two debatable decisions from referee Ian Turner.
O’Neill will have been encouraged by Saha’s classy hold-up play, yet the Frenchman’s finishing wasn’t at the same level after he was unable to profit from the glut of presentable chances that came his way.
Of Saha’s supporting cast, Wickham helped himself to two tap-ins and spurned a golden opportunity for a hat-trick moments before he was withdrawn from the action.
It was symptomatic of Wickham’s display. Some things the £8million hitman did well, yet on others – particularly when it came to control – consistency continues to elude the 19-year-old.
Wickham showed far more to the watching O’Neill than Ji though, who endured a torrid night out wide, albeit he laid on the cross for Sunderland’s second.
Vaughan was efficient if not flashy in the holding midfield role, while Billy Knott was the pick of Sunderland’s youngsters – proving himself up for the physical challenge of a derby and delivering a number of telling passes from the left.
It began well for Sunderland when they took the lead in the eighth minute when Knott was allowed in behind right-back Mehdi Abeid on the left-hand touchline.
Knott crossed low across the face and with stopper Jak Alnwick stranded, Wickham tapped into the empty net from a yard out.
But it proved to be a false dawn.
Too often in the first half, Sunderland were sloppy with their passing and failed to match the physical or attacking intensity of their younger hosts.
In contrast, Newcastle looked sharp going forward.
Diminutive central striker Adam Campbell justified the hype with his slick movement and control, while Sammy Ameobi occupied Sunderland left-back Blair Adams on the right for the whole encounter.
Sunderland’s advantage only lasted until the 16th minute after a clanger from England under-19 stopper Jordan Pickford gifted Newcastle the leveller.
Pickford seemed to have Campbell’s pull-back from the right in his grasp, but then spilled it straight into the path of Brad Inman, who turned it into the empty net.
Two smart stops from Alnwick, brother of former Sunderland stopper Ben, prevented the visitors immediately regaining the lead after he twice denied Saha.
Wickham laid it off to Saha, on the edge of the Newcastle area, and he curled a left-foot shot towards the far corner only for Alnwick to palm it away.
Knott retrieved the ball on the left-hand touchline and pulled it back into the path of Saha, whose shot across goal was again saved by Alnwick before Ji embarrassingly slashed an ugly volley out for a throw-in on the rebound.
Newcastle took the lead in the 35th minute and again it was a soft goal conceded by the visitors.
Campbell made a yard on Louis Laing to the left of goal, just outside the area, and let fly with a relatively timid shot.
But the ball deflected off the thigh of John Egan, bounced against the near post before bobbling along the line and into the net.
The Magpies went close to a third when Gosling sent an inch-perfect through-ball in behind the Newcastle defence for Campbell to chase onto.
Campbell had just Pickford to beat as he bore down on goal from the left, but his shot towards the far corner was superbly palmed away by the Sunderland keeper.
The let-off should have sparked a leveller from the resulting corner as Sunderland broke when Vaughan fed Saha on halfway.
The French striker fed a sublime through-ball into the path of the sprinting Wickham, but his first touch was dreadful – taking him wide and forcing him to hit an off-balance shot towards the near post which was comfortably blocked by Alnwick.
Sunderland were sent out early for the second half and boasted far more intensity and control to their play.
Ball’s side levelled within four minutes of the restart, with an almost carbon-copy goal of the first.
Laing played Ji in behind Shane Ferguson down the right and the South Korean delivered a low ball across the face for Wickham to again tap into an empty net from a yard or so.
The Black Cats should have taken the lead three minutes later after Conor Newton’s dreadfully under-hit back pass left Saha with just Alnwick to beat.
But the former Manchester United striker took the ball too wide as he went round the stopper and could only knock it into the side netting from a narrow angle.
Wickham spurned a golden opportunity for a hat-trick just before his withdrawal, when he was played in on goal by Saha.
But the ex-Ipswich man’s chances of a treble were spurned by his poor control, a heavy second touch seeing the ball roll harmlessly into the arms of Alnwick.
Saha should have been awarded a penalty after being bundled over by Gosling before Campbell took turns to miss a one-on-one at the other end in the 63rd minute when Egan slipped midway inside his own half and left the Newcastle striker with just Pickford to beat.
But the Sunderland stopper stood up well and double-parried away Campbell’s shot towards the near post.
Sunderland again went close to a third with five minutes to go when Saha spread the play left to Ji, who picked out Adam Reed, bursting in behind the Magpies defence after a lung-busting run from his own half.
But, under pressure from the backtracking Newton, Reed could only direct his sliding effort just wide of the post.
Two minutes later, Saha had another chance – sending a volley over the top from eight yards from Adam Mitchell’s right-wing corner.
Controversy arrived at the death when Mitchell was fouled by Abeid after controlling Saha’s pass when he looked to have been inside the area.
But referee Turner adjudged the foul to have taken place outside the box – Saha spurning another good chance from the resulting free-kick when he headed Vaughan’s delivery over the top.
NEWCASTLE: Alnwick, Abeid, Ferguson, Newton, Richardson (Moyo 69), Good, Ameobi, Gosling, Campbell, Inman, Hooper. Subs not used: J Mitchell, Nicholson, Riley, Maddison.
SUNDERLAND: Pickford, Laing, Adams, Reed, Egan, Kilgallon, Ji, Vaughan, Saha, Wickham (Laidler 60), Knott (Mitchell 83). Subs not used: Dixon, Ferguson, Marrs. Booked: Vaughan (62)
Attendance: 1,776; Ref: Ian Turner