Matt Dench Sunderland boys on title brink

STRONG IN DEFENCE: Sunderland full-back Chris Brown helped restrict rivals Norton.
STRONG IN DEFENCE: Sunderland full-back Chris Brown helped restrict rivals Norton.
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RAMPANT Sunderland firsts can clinch the North East League First Division title on Saturday.

Victory against Stockton seconds at the Raich Carter Centre on Saturday (1pm start) will guarantee the championship for Matt Dench’s men, who have led the table from start to finish, losing just one game so far.

The Ashbrooke side outgunned Norton, their only rivals for the title, 5-1 on Teesside last week to move eight points clear with two matches to go, although Norton have a game in hand which keeps the title race alive, for the moment.

Sunderland knew the importance of their trip down the A19, and they took the game to Norton from the whistle. Two great chances went begging before they deservedly broke the deadlock, captain Dench stroking the ball home on the half-volley from close range.

Norton were rocked, and Sunderland capitalised to quickly double their advantage, Dench playing a firm pass into the D for Nick Campbell, who cleverly deflected the ball into the corner of the net.

Jason Scott was forced off after a poor Norton challenge, but Sunderland stayed strong and effectively killed the game off by half-time with a fine team goal finished by Dench after Campbell’s neat pass.

Campbell went on to complete a memorable hat-trick in the second half to leave Norton devastated, his second goal following good right-wing play by Jonny Pearson, the third afer great work from Ian McGinley.

Both sides ended up with just 10 men, Alec Jackson and a Norton player sent off after a scuffle, with the Teessiders making the most of the defender’s absence to grab a consolation goal.

Sunderland could be proud of a superb all-round display, with Campbell, Neil Holmes and Craig Togher starring in midfield and keeper Andy Wilkinson pulling off a series of fine stops behind a hard-working defence of Chris Brown, Peter Strong, Jackson and Neil Sparrowhawk.

In Division Four, Sunderland thirds fought well to claim a 3-3 draw at Newcastle firsts – although they had chances with a late rush of short corners to win the game.

Dale Ramage netted a fine double, including a brilliant strike, turning on to Stewart Douglas’s pass to fire into the roof of the net, with Mark Fife also on target, netting from the top of the circle. Keeper David Foley was again outstanding, with Johnny Raine and Tony Barber also shining.

The thirds host Richmond thirds to the Raich Carter Centre on Saturday (2.30pm).

In the Conference South, Sunderland fourths eased home 4-0 at Norton, with man of the match James Bibby in imperious form in midfield.

Bibby set up Jamie Emmerson for the opener, with Andrew Gayner thumping home a second after a dazzling run. Improving striker Ed Winship added a second-half brace.

The fourths visit Gateshead fourths at Whickham on Saturday (3pm) before hosting Hartlepool seconds on Sunday (1pm).

In the Second Division, Sunderland seconds go to Stockton thirds on Saturday (12.30pm).

Sunderland I (home to Stockton II, meet 12.0, start 1.0): A Wilkinson, A Jackson, C Brown, N Sparrowhawk, M Dench, N Campbell, P Strong, J Scott, I McGinley, C Togher, J Pearson, N Holmes

Sunderland II (away to Stockton III, meet 10.45, start 12.30): Nemo, A Crute, S Crute, P Renshaw, C Richardson, S Evans, A Gayner, D Stevens, C Vaughan, J Emmerson, A Park, M Wilkinson, A Campbell.

Sunderland III (home to Richmond III, meet 2.0, start 2.30): D Foley, M Brown, J Gardner, S Douglas, T Barber, G Pearson, S Liddle, D Ramage, E Matters, M Fife, P Billyard, J Raine, J Magog, A Wilkinson

Sunderland IV (away to Gateshead IV, meet 1.30, start 3.0): G Olsen, C Maughan, E Winship, G Johnston, G Christie, J Bibby, N Plunkett, T Grant, J Argile, L Smith, J Donkin, D Greenwood, T Brown