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Spirit can take us up – Connolly

SUNDERLAND’S Braveheart spirit can carry them back to the Premiership, says top scorer Dave Connolly.

The striker’s 10th goal of the season – from the club’s first penalty in 63 games – set up a dramatic 2-1 home victory over promotion rivals Derby on Saturday.

Liam Miller’s injury-time header earned a valuable three points and that never-say-die attitude could make all the difference, reckons Connolly.

The Republic of Ireland forward said: “The lads are fighting tooth and nail for everything and we’re getting our rewards.

“We conceded a very late equaliser at Birmingham in midweek and we felt we should have won that one.

“We didn’t want to feel the same disappointment again – and it would have been disappointing to draw against Derby.

“You could see our attitude with Saturday’s winner. Liam Miller was still getting into the box in 90-odd minutes and that’s what you get when you gamble – it’s what you get when you’re being brave and go for it.

“The lads are breaking their necks to get results.”

After a tense and close opening period, Connolly fired Sunderland into a 27th-minute lead from the spot after referee Martin Atkinson spotted a shirt tug on the striker by Rams skipper Marc Edworthy.

It was the first penalty awarded to Sunderland since November 19, 2005, which Dean Whitehead despatched for a 90th-minute consolation in a 3-1 loss to Aston Villa.

Connolly said: “Someone told me it had been 60-odd games since the club’s last penalty, which is amazing. It was a definite pull back. The ref did well because there’s a lot of that goes on and it doesn’t get punished.

“Dean Whitehead wasn’t on the pitch, of course, and I think he fancied a go at a penalty if we got one, but I got to the ball and was confident.

“I’ve taken them against Stephen Bywater before and there was a bit of psychology going on. He was trying to wind me up. I just picked a side to shoot and it went in.”

Sunderland now travel to West Brom to meet the league leaders for the second weekend in a row. The Baggies’ 1-1 draw at Leicester was enough to take them top on goal difference ahead of Derby.

“It’s going to be another tough game and we know that,” added Connolly. “We had this run of big games and feel we should have six points from Birmingham and Derby.

“We’ll fancy our chances against a good West Brom side.”


Miller desperate to avoid another play-off heartache

SUNDERLAND hero Liam Miller is gunning for automatic promotion – eager to avoid another taste of the play-offs.

The Black Cats have play-off nightmares of their own fresh in the memory, and Miller endured a “sickening” time in last season’s end-of-season showdown while at Leeds.

Miller’s injury-time header sealed a stunning win over Derby on Saturday, to move Sunderland within three points of new leaders West Brom – who host the Wearsiders this weekend.

And Miller is determined to keep Sunderland – unbeaten in the Championship in 2007 – on the up to claim one of the top two automatic promotion slots.

The former Celtic and Manchester United man said: “I was at Leeds last season. We for in the play-offs and made it to the final, and everyone knows what happened against Watford (Leeds suffered a 3-0 defeat to the underdogs).

“It just wasn’t to be and it was sickening having had such a good season. I hope I’m not playing in the play-offs this season – I want to avoid that.

“It was such a horrible feeling. We all want to avoid the play-offs and go and win automatic promotion.

“It is within reach and I hope we can do it.

“We just have to make sure we keep winning. The game at West Brom is massive.”

The top eight clubs are separated by four points in a fascinatingly poised promotion race. Such is the closeness of the battle is that Sunderland would have dropped to eighth had they not grabbed all three points against Derby.

Miller added: “It’s so close in the table, it’s still there to be won.

“We feel we are better than the other teams, that’s what we all believe, but we have got to go out and prove it.”

Sunderland’s last-gasp win followed the heartache of conceding a last-minute goal in Tuesday’s 1-1 draw at Birmingham.

“We all felt sick at Birmingham when we conceded the late goal,” added the Irish midfielder, who partnered Dwight Yorke in the absence of suspended skipper Dean Whitehead.

“The dressing room was very low, but we managed to do it to Derby and it was a different dressing room.

“It says a lot about the character we have in the team. It’s credit to all the lads. We dug deep, kept going and it paid off at the end to give us an important win.”