A month in which fixtures were aplenty alongside the transfer window and the opportunity to bring in fresh faces; this was a crucial month for North East football. Disappointingly, however, neither of the 3 sides were able to put a run of results together – somewhat symptomatic of their seasons to date.
Here’s the story of the month:
Sunderland and Middlesbrough in focus
Sunderland and Middlesbrough were paired together in the third round of the FA Cup which took place over the first weekend of January. It turned out to be a routine 2-0 victory for Tony Pulis’ side and this made it Boro’s 5th win in a row in all competitions against the Black Cats. The trio of Rudy Gustede, Martin Braithwaite and Adama Traore caused all kinds of problems for the Sunderland defence and it was the former 2 who each got their name on the scoresheet.
The following weekend saw Chris Coleman return to the Cardiff City Stadium for Sunderland’s game with promotion contenders Cardiff. Middlesbrough welcomed fellow mid-table side Fulham to the Riverside Stadium. The gulf in class between the Black Cats and Neil Warnock’s side was very much apparent. Although nothing separated them at the break, Cardiff scored four unanswered second half goals. Sunderland’s cause was not aided by N’Dong’s red card 4 minutes into the second half. The game between Boro and Fulham was a much tighter affair. An added time spot kick courtesy of Oliver Norwood was the only difference between the sides and made it four wins in five for Fulham.
Sunderland had to respond quickly against Hull City at the Stadium of Light. And they did so, grinding out a 1-0 win. This was only their second win at home this season and put them level on points with relegation rivals Hull. Middlesbrough made the journey south to facing a struggling QPR side. A fine performance which included goals from Daniel Ayala, George Friend and Adama Traore earnt Tony Pulis his second league win since taking charge.
Boro then faced an FA Cup 4th tie at home to Brighton whilst Sunderland had the weekend off. Glen Murray’s 90th minute goal was the only difference between the 2 sides. A tough one to take given that Boro had created plenty of chances and struck the woodwork in the first half.
Sunderland’s final game of the month provided a chance to leap frog Birmingham out of the relegation zone provided they could return from St Andrews with all three points. Trailing 2-0 by half time, Coleman’s side did pull one back in the second half, but it ended 3-1. Coleman described the performance as “unacceptable” in his post-match press conference.
Middlesbrough could only manage a nil-all draw in their final game of the month. At the end of the month Boro sit in eighth, 3 points off the playoff places, whilst Sunderland remain in the relegation zone, albeit a point from safety.
Chris Coleman will be hoping that a good deadline day will be enough to save the Black Cats’ season. They welcomed Ovie Ejaria, Ashley Fletcher and Lee Camp to the club, all on loan deals. Boro were also busy in the final hours of the window. Muhamed Besic and Martin Cranie came in, a day after securing the exciting signing of Jack Harrison on loan from Man City. Martin Braithwaite and Ashley Fletcher left on loan whilst Cyrus Christie was sold to Fulham.
Newcastle in focus
Luton Town came to Tyneside on the first weekend of January looking for a giant killing in the Fa Cup. A 9-minute first half blitz in which Newcastle scored 3 goals ensured it was a comfortable afternoon for Benitez’s side. Luton did manage a deserved second half consolation goal however. The following weekend Newcastle had a crucial home game with relegation rivals Swansea. Swansea, now managed by Carlos Carvahal, went ahead through Jordan Ayew’s headed effort. Four minutes after coming off the bench Joselu fired home from a tight angle to rescue the Magpies a point.
The following weekend, Newcastle faced the league leaders Man City at the Etihad Stadium. Newcastle gave a decent account of themselves after going 2 goals down. Jacob Murphy pulled one back, his first goal in a Newcastle shirt, before Sergio Aguero made sure of the points, tucking home a penalty to complete his hat trick.
The fixture list didn’t get much easier. This time Chelsea away in the 4th round of the FA Cup. Newcastle started the game well, but 2 lapses in concentration allowed Michy Batshuayi to put Chelsea 2-up by the break. A second half freekick from Marcos Alonso sealed the win. New loan signing, Kenedy, was unable to play a part against his former club.
The Brazilian did make his debut three days later though on Deadline Day at home to Burnley. And it was he who earnt a first half penalty after he’d already hit the post from the edge of the box. Joselu was unable to convert from 12 yards, as Nick Pope made a fine save. Eventually Newcastle did deservedly go in front thanks to Jamaal Lascelles’ header from Kenedy’s corner. A frustrating night though for Benitez as his side were unable to see out the game. Substitute Sam Vokes bundled home a header 5 minutes from time to ensure that Burnley returned home with a point.
Within the inner sanctums of St James’ Park, it was all go on the transfer front. A busy deadline day saw Jack Colback, Henri Saivet, Freddie Woodman, Rolando Aarons and Aleksandar Mitrovic all go out on loan to various clubs across Europe. In came Islam Slimani and goalkeeper Martin Dubravka both on loan deals. Benitez finally got a striker he’d so desperately craved since the 1st January. Mike Ashley once again managing to clear the wage bill whilst not bringing any players in for a significant fee. It was the owner, Ashley, to whom the fans displayed a highly appropriate message prior to the Burnley game.
Words: Caspar de Wesselow