This wasn’t just another game.
It wasn’t just another defeat. It certainly wasn’t a 3-0 defeat.
Steve McClaren did his best to get his Newcastle United players to play the game, and not the occasion, in the build-up to yesterday’s Wear-Tyne derby.
And they did play the game. For 45 minutes.
Newcastle were the better side, right up to the moment Fabricio Coloccini leant into Steven Fletcher as he ran towards goal in first-half injury time.
There was only one team attempting to play football, and it wasn’t Sunderland.
But that didn’t come as a complete surprise to those who had made the short journey from Tyneside.
Time and again United broke forward. They played with pace and purpose, and found spaces between the lines Sam Allardyce had strung across the pitch.
Coloccini had an early effort saved, Aleksandar Mitrovic headed wide and Georginio Wijnaldum saw a free-kick tipped over the bar by Costel Pantilimon, while Moussa Sissoko had a shot blocked.
Allardyce seemed content for his Sunderland players to sit deep and soak up the pressure.
There was only one team attempting to play football, and it wasn’t Sunderland. But that didn’t come as a complete surprise to those who had made the short journey from Tyneside.
It was a tactic he often tried while in charge of Newcastle, but it rarely worked. And it shouldn’t have worked at the Stadium of Light, where they were out-passed and out-thought by United.
What’s more, they almost silenced the Stadium of Light. It didn’t feel like a derby, such was Newcastle’s dominance.
Yet for all their possession, McClaren’s side seemed to lack conviction in and around the box.
They were on top, but had nothing to show for it.
And that, as much as referee Robert Madley’s decision-making, was their undoing.
McClaren, the club’s head coach, was furious with Madley for awarding a penalty, and sending off Coloccini, for his push on Fletcher.
It was arguably a penalty, but was it a red card?
United goalkeeper Rob Elliot was going to be first to the ball, so was Fletcher denied a clear goalscoring opportunity?
McClaren had called for cool heads in the 153rd meeting between the North East’s two great rivals, and Coloccini, his most experienced player, had momentarily lost his head.
Maybe Madley lost his too by brandishing a red card, and not a yellow.
That’s not the whole story. Seconds earlier, Wijnaldum had had a penalty claim waved away after he went down in the box under a challenge from Lee Cattermole, who somehow stayed out of Madley’s notebook.
Cheick Tiote, preferred to Vurnon Anita in midfield, hadn’t been so fortunate.
Tiote – who made way in a tactical change at the break, when he was replaced by defender Jamaal Lascelles – got just one warning before his early booking.
But Madley, undoubtedly, had an influence on the outcome of the scoreline, if not the result itself.
Down to 10 men, and down 1-0, Newcastle were a different side after the break, and they weren’t helped by the loss of former Sunderland midfielder Jack Colback, whose afternoon was ended by another clumsy Cattermole challenge early in the second half.
Colback, booed off the team bus when he arrived, was the subject of a vile “Jack Colback, we wish you were dead” chant.
And some fans ran down to the front of the South Stand to abuse him as he hobbled around the perimeter of the pitch.
It was a painful afternoon for Colback,who was booed back on to the team bus.
United attempted to regroup, but Billy Jones’s close-range effort – he poked a Yann M’Vila volley into the net – ended hopes of a comeback in the 65th minute.
Florian Thauvin, McClaren’s third and only unenforced substitute, made no impact off the bench.
And Fletcher capped a miserable afternoon for United with a third goal four minutes from time.
Still, Newcastle’s players were applauded at the final whistle by the club’s 2,800-strong travelling support. Maybe United’s fans had seen enough in those 45 minutes to give them heart ahead of what promise to be a long few months for a team which is just two points above basement club Aston Villa.
McClaren’s side had attempted to play football, but those players left the field as derby losers. Again.
This wasn’t just another derby defeat, but it still hurt.