When Tony Mowbray played for Middlesbrough his manager, Bruce Rioch, maintained the centre-half was the man he would want alongside him during a rocket flight to the moon. Almost four decades on, and Sunderland supporters have increasing reason to believe Mowbray’s navigation skills could be about to transport them to new heights. Buoyed up by a crowd of 42,584 his gifted, audaciously attack minded young team certainly proved far too good for Michael Carrick’s previously upwardly mobile Middlesbrough side.
Although Boro spent most of the second half with ten men, a Sunderland side inspired by the 20-year-old Manchester United loanee Amad Diallo’s attacking excellence were already well on top by the time Dael Fry was sent off. Goals from Diallo and Ross Stewart lifted them to ninth, one point adrift of sixth-placed Boro, who had won seven of their previous eight Championship games. What price this sweet passing pair meeting again in the play-offs?
Not surprisingly, Diallo dominated post match conversation. “He’s got the talent to play for Manchester United’s first XI,” said Sunderland’s manager. “The ball sticks to his foot, he sees every pass, and his belief and personality are growing. He’ll get opportunities, I bet, when he goes back to Man Utd next summer.”
Mowbray has always believed in creating youth opportunities and, sure enough, his Sunderland starting XI featured eight players eligible for the Under-23s, with Diallo the brightest in a glittery firmament. Carrick once coached the Ivorian at Old Trafford and the visiting manager must have feared the worst when an uncharacteristically slapdash early pass from his goalkeeper, Zack Steffen, flew straight to Diallo.
Steffen, on loan at Boro from Manchester City, prides himself on his footwork and is integral to Carrick’s build-from-the-back approach. But the American was suddenly helpless. Small wonder he looked relief epitomised as Diallo dragged his shot wide.
Presumably anxious to atone for that miss, the loanee proceeded to make himself central to the creation or execution of almost every subsequent home chance. Typically the fall out from Diallo’s cross resulted in an offside Ross Stewart seeing a goal disallowed for offside. Mowbray’s team were not merely playing some lovely stuff but dominating midfield. With Patrick Roberts and Jack Clarke stretching Boro at every opportunity they gave a visiting side accustomed to out-passing and out-moving opponents quite a shock.
Although Marcus Forss’s searing, angled, goal-bound shot was quite brilliantly repelled by the otherwise underemployed Anthony Patterson, Sunderland could conceivably have been four up at the interval.
Four minutes into the second half Fry was sent off for sending Stewart tumbling as, with only Steffen to beat, he connected with Roberts’s fine through pass and crossed into the area. “I don’t understand the penalty,” said Carrick. “It was outside the box. And I don’t agree with the red card. I’m not saying Stewart dived but he was very clever. Dael made no attempt to bring him down.”
As Fry trudged off, Steffen saved Stewart’s ensuing penalty but the striker made no mistake from the rebound and was soon celebrating his 11th goal in 14 games. Had Stewart not missed a sizeable chunk of the season through injury, Sunderland would surely be higher up the table.
They might have doubled their advantage had Paddy McNair not blocked bravely to deny Édouard Michut. A 19-year-old midfielder on loan from Paris Saint-German, Michut is, like Diallo, flourishing under the guidance of a manager whose teams invariably endeavour to play attractive, passing football. It is no coincidence that Manchester United and PSG trust Mowbray to nurture some of their brightest young stars.
Refreshingly, Carrick adheres to similar footballing principles and, with time-wasting and gamesmanship so rife at present, it was pleasing to see two sides attempting to keep the ball in play whenever possible. If such a mutual emphasis on aesthetics made for a rather un-stereotypical derby it was all the better for it and, despite Boro, paradoxically, improving following Fry’s dismissal, Sunderland gained further reward for such positivity when Diallo scored their much merited second goal.
It featured the forward combining superbly with Roberts before dropping a shoulder, dodging Hayden Hackney and beating Steffen courtesy of a fine left-footed finish. “Controlling the ball’s so easy for Amad, he doesn’t have to think because he can just kill it dead and he sees the pass straight away,” said Mowbray. “It’s unbelievable how clever he is.”