DARREN Williams reckons togetherness and tenacity are the two qualities Sunderland need most in this weekend’s game against their derby rivals.
Williams, who was at Sunderland from 1996-2004 played in an era when the Black Cats tended to be the underdogs to Magpie sides regularly ensconced at the top of the Premier League.
And he says that the successes Sunderland did enjoy under Peter Reid against a high-flying Newcastle were largely down to am unbreakable team-spirit.
“When we were playing at our best under Reidy, we felt confident in each other and confident we could take on anyone.
“I remember us taking on Man United at their best in a night match at the Stadium of Light, going 2-0 up on them and being absolutely gutted to end the game 2-2.
“And that’s the sort of resolve Sunderland need this weekend -– a real focused, bloody-minded attitude and a belief in themselves and each other.”
There were hundreds of Newcastle fans shouting every swear word under the sun at us.Darren Williams
Williams, now 37, was only 19 years old, when he joined Sunderland in a bargain £50,000 move from York City.
The teenage Teessider was to go on to become one of the finest utility players the club has ever had.
He made close to 200 appearances for the Black Cats and was recently named in a poll of the top 100 greatest post-war signings.
Such were his steady-Eddie qualities and quiet efficiency, so much of his work done off the ball and in covering for colleagues, that he was rarely in the spotlight.
Two exceptions to that general rule were derby games – a Tees-Wear derby in which the youngster took centre-stage and a Tyne-Wear derby in which he was central to perhaps the game’s most enduring image.
Williams was in his first season at Sunderland when he took part in the club’s first Middlesbrough derby played at the Riverside Stadium.
The unknown was a surprise pick to man-mark Boro danger-man Juninho but ended up stealing the show with a headed goal in a 1-0 win.
Arguably though, he’s more well-known for the 2-1 win over Newcastle United at St James’s Park in 2000 when Thomas Sorensen saved Alan Shearer’s penalty.
The lasting image of that game was a photograph taken through the net of Sorensen’s goal which showed the keeper, mid-air saving, and Williams behind Shearer’s shoulders, fists-clenched in triumph.
Williams smiled: “They’re both games I’ll never forget.
“Scoring in the Tees derby was incredible for a young lad like myself and at the time it looked like that might be the goal that kept us up that season.
“The goal was so unexpected that I didn’t know what to do and I just celebrated running off and cupping my ears to the Boro fans who had been giving me so much stick.
“Looking back it was probably a daft thing to do and it definitely felt that way when some Boro fans got their own back on my car windows!”
That game brought home to Williams the passions that derbies can arouse but he points out that the Tyne-Wear derby was on another level altogether in terms of emotions running high.
He said: “When we got off the team bus at St James’s Park, I can honestly say I have never experienced hatred like it.
“There were hundreds of Newcastle fans shouting every swear word under the sun at us.
“But like I say, we had a real bond of togetherness in us as a team and it didn’t affect us, it just made us look forward to the game more.”
The late Gary Speed opened the scoring in the fourth minute that November afternoon, Don Hutchison equalising in the 68th and Niall Quinn heading Sunderland ahead in the 76th before giving away a penalty in the dying minutes which looked certain to level the game 2-2.
In front of the Gallowgate though, penalty-expert Shearer’s shot was saved by Sorensen flinging himself to his left and Williams, face contorted in rageful ecstasy, celebrated.
“That photograph is brought up most times I speak to Sunderland fans,” said Williams, who these days manages Whitby and coaches at East Durham College.
“Credit to the photographer, he caught the moment perfectly.
“I was usually pretty calm and composed on the pitch but that save just meant so much in the context of the game and given the pressure we’d be under and stick we’d taken.
“It was an amazing save and my expression, I think, sums up just how much we wanted to win and just how much the game meant to us.”
This Sunday’s derby also means a great deal.
Sunderland are once again desperate for a victory to stave off genuine relegation fears – the same as in the past two seasons.
And Newcastle too, though in no danger of the drop, are equally keen to end a slump which has seen them win just two of their last 12 games and drop into the bottom half of the table.
“There’s pressure on Newcastle and John Carver in particular, as well as Sunderland,” accepts Williams.
“But obviously the match is far more important for Sunderland.
“That’s why it’s important the players look on the positive rather than the negative side of things this week.
“They’ve got a great recent record to draw on in the derby, they’re at home, and after a poor season, this would be a great moment to give back to the fans.”
The Teessider also believes Sunderland could receive its biggest boost from Boro boys!
“Looking at the strikers, this is a big game for the likes of Jermaine Defoe, Steven Fletcher and Connor Wickham.
“But I think probably the most important thing for Sunderland is the chance to have Lee Cattermole in the side with Adam Johnson – both lads who know each other’s games inside out from their time coming up through the ranks at Middlesbrough.
“There’s no doubt that Sunderland have missed Cattermole badly – he has the same sort of impact on this side that Kevin Ball used to have on ours.
“And while Adam Johnson might get more stick from Newcastle fans than normal, he’s an absolutely top quality player with a great goalscoring record against the Mags.
“It’s going to be a great occasion because it’s an amazing fixture and there’s always so many different stories that come out of it.
“I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that Sunderland can get yet another win.”