While the first team squad enjoy the middle Eastern sunshine, last night, in arctic conditions, Sunderland U21s were in Wear/Tees derby action Stadium of Light. Deputy Editor Malcolm Dawson, risked a dose of hypothermia to be there.
Sunderland U21s 3 Middlesbrough U21s 2
On a freezing cold night when I was grateful for my thermals, Pete Sixsmith and I linked up with a smattering of the Hetton irregulars at the Stadium of Light where Middlesbrough were the visitors. I was hoping that I might get a glimpse of Emmanuele Eboue who supposedly the coaching staff are trying to get up to speed in the hope a second Ivorian defender will give Sam more options in the problematical right back position.
But both sides put out genuine Under 21 sides, with the exception of Smoggie’s left back Alex Baptiste who was unfortunate enough to suffer a broken leg on his Boro debut in a pre-season friendly against York and has yet to feature in Karanka’s starting XI.
Before kick off the crowd of 606 stood in respectful silence to mark the passing of Radio Tees reporter Ali Brownlee who overnight had lost his battle with cancer, just three months after its diagnosis.
Boro turned out in a smart looking yellow and black kit, but it was the home side who looked the smartest during a first half in which they dominated possession. They had obviously been given instructions to pass and move, keep the ball and make the opposition run around. This they did with aplomb and the yellow shirts of the Boro team were left chasing shadows for much of the first period.
Winger Rees Greenwood and (fresh from his appearance on the first team subs’ bench) inside forward George Honeyman were the two players who caught the eye in the early stages and it came as no surprise when Honeyman provided a pinpoint cross for striker Mikael Mandron to power a header home after ten minutes. This came at the end of some lovely possession football, the home side moving the visitors around at will and mixing up some tight, sharp passes with longer balls fired out to the wings with pinpoint accuracy.
Despite their dominance the red and whites couldn’t increase their advantage by half time thanks to some resolute defensive work from a side who weren’t afraid to throw their bodies in front of anything the home side threw at them.
Discussion amongst the irregulars during the interval was full of praise for a side who are still pushing Manchester United for the title, despite losing the services of Duncan Watmore, Lynden Gooch, Will Buckley and Charas Mavrias over the past few months and I wondered what Valentin Roberge was up to. Here’s a player, still on the payroll who is doubtless enjoying his massive monthly pay cheque, but not playing any football. I can’t blame him for boosting his bank balance while his contract runs down but is he even training with the club these days?
Talk was also about the young lads who might follow Watmore into the 1st team squad. I like Gooch, currently on loan at Doncaster. Honeyman, Greenwood and Beadling were also mentioned as possibles but comments were made that the entire team looked to be on the lightweight side for the rough and tumble of the Premier League. Would Agnew and the Robsons (Josh and Tom) be given new contracts? Goalkeeper Max Stryjek possibly has the best chance of making the step up. He is a folk hero in Boston where he spent some time on loan, the Pilgrims winning seven and drawing four of the games in which he featured. Could be a future back up to Jordan Pickford as Don Vito’s contract runs out this summer?
The second half saw more of the same and another intricate move saw Carl Lawson score a peach of a goal. Following that play became a bit ragged and Boro began to create more chances. A weak challenge saw the burly Austrian Arnel Jakupovic bear down on the Sunderland goal and his calm finish, beyond the outstetched arm of Max Stryjek halved the deficit. Confidence was restored when Mandron netted his second – a bit scrappier than his first but they all count. Boro finished off the scoring when Jakupovic was brought down in the box and he converted the spot kick himself but the Lads 3-2 victory keeps them in the title chase.
Next up Liverpool and Leicester.