Sunderland U21s 3 Middlesbrough U21s 2
KEVIN Ball warmed up for tonight’s Capital One Cup game against Peterborough with a fine derby win for the club’s development squad, writes Graeme Anderson.
The newly-appointed caretaker manager was in the dug-out to oversee a victory which took his young side to the top of the Barclays Under 21 Premier League table at the Eppleton Colliery Welfare Ground.
And it provides the perfect boost ahead of the Capital One Cup tie against Peterborough in which Ball will look to mark his return as Sunderland’s caretaker boss with a first-team victory.
But it was not an easy win for his side last night with Boro taking the game to Sunderland in the first-half and despite being reduced to 10 men just before the break, continuing to make a battle of it on the resumption.
Ball resisted any temptation to bring in any established players, instead fielding the youthful squad that had done so well in the early weeks of the new campaign.
Middlesbrough by contrast put out their strongest side of the season, taking the chance to field three over-21 players, keeper Jayson Leutwiler and midfielders Faris Haroun and Richard Smallwood.
That experience showed early in the game with Boro starting confidently and taking the lead in the fifth minute with a shot from 25 yards from striker Luke Williams.
It was a sweetly-struck. right-foot effort and it found the bottom right-hand corner of Joel Dixon’s goal.
Sunderland responded in the 10th minute when Adam Mitchell crossed from the right and Mikael Mandron’s shot was blocked and George Honeyman’s follow-up was saved by grounded keeper Leutwiler.
Boro had the ball in the back of the net for a second time in the 20th minute when Andy Halliday played in striker Jordan Jones who tapped home inside the six-yard box but saw his effort very harshly ruled offside.
And the Teessiders followed that up with Andy Halliday rifling a shot over Dixon’s crossbar in the 25th minute.
Summer signing Duncan Watmore had a great chance to draw Sunderland level just before the half-hour when he seized on a ball down the left and stroked a goal-bound shot with the outside of his right boot but it hit the shoulder of advancing keeper Leutwiler.
The young attacker tried his luck a couple of minutes later with a spectacular sidefoot volley from a right wing cross which flew high over the bar.
But Sunderland were presented with a great chance to go level in the 37th minute when Mitchell’s cross from the right was handled by Adam Jackson at the near post and referee Turner pointed to the spot.
Mandron duly obliged, despatching a powerful low shot into the bottom left-hand corner of Leutwiler’s goal.
And Sunderland’s prospects improved just a minute later when Mandron was upended on the edge of the Boro area by Jonathan Burn as the striker broke on goal. Burn hauled him to the ground and saw red for his troubles.
And even though the resulting free-kick produced nothing of note for the home team, Sunderland were looking in the box seat with their opponents reduced to 10 men for the rest of the game.
Sunderland’s new-found advantage was underlined when Liam Agnew scored a great goal in the 43rd minute, sizing up the target from distance before smashing a rising shot which the Boro keeper could get fingertips to but could not prevent going into his top right-hand corner.
Boro made a game of it though on the stroke of half-time when a cross was accidentally handled by full-back Liam Marrs and Luke Williams converted confidently from the spot to send the teams in at half-time on level terms.
The visitors were competitive on the resumption and Agnew was the victim of a meaty challenge in the 50th minute from Richard Smallwood which needed treatment before the midfielder could continue.
That set the tone for much of the second half which was high on attritional play and short on goalmouth action at either end.
The deadlock was broken though in the 75th minute when a weak clearance in the Boro area dropped to Agnew just inside the area and he reacted quickly with a smart shot through a crowded penalty area for his second goal of the game.
That strike took some of the fight out of Boro and Sunderland went close to extending their lead a couple of minutes later when Mitchell advanced and blazed a shot narrowly over Leutwiler’s bar.
More Sunderland shots were to follow as the game reached its conclusion - a left-footed Watmore effort in the 89th minute flashed narrowly wide and Mandron forced a great one-handed save from Leutwiler in stoppage time.
Commendably, Boro kept pushing and pushing to the final whistle. But Sunderland saw the game out to give their coach a perfect boost going into the game against Peterborough.
Sunderland: Dixon, Marrs, Ferguson, Agnew (sub Cartwright 90), Harrison, McNamee, Watmore, Gorrin, Mandron, Honeyman (sub Lawson 69), Mitchell (sub Holland 90). Subs: Egan, Burke.
Middlesbrough: Leutwiler, Bennett, Burn, Jackson, Meling, Haroun (sub Fewster) 64, Halliday (sub Kneeshaw 72), Smallwood, Williams, Jones, Park. Subs: Coddington, Weledji, Waters.
Ref: Mr I Turner. Att: 504.