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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 07/02/04, 3.00pm
By Matt Rowson

My brother might dispute this, but the reality is that when it comes to football I taught him all he knows. The fact that he's quite a decent footballer whilst I couldn't kick straight to save my life should, rather than evoking scepticism on your part, only elevate the significance of my achievement.

I'm not normally one to blow my own trumpet... but I've never really felt that the years I spent educating him in the back garden have been given the recognition that they merited. As a twelve-year-old, positioning my five-year-old sibling in the centre of the goal and repeatedly clouting the ball at him required remarkable self-sacrifice, and gave my brother a toughening up that I only wish I'd had....

Whether Jack Smith's supervision was similarly overseen by brother Tommy we can only speculate. On Saturday they could face each other for the first time at senior level, and become the first brothers to face each other in a Watford game since the Holdsworth twins in 1996. Like the Holdsworths, there's a possibility that the two could be in direct competition; Tommy could be forced out to the right by McCarthy's recently increased striking options and Jack could appear on either flank, dependent on which side RL decides needs the attention of our one "proper" fullback.

Sunderland's reasonable showing this season comes as something of a surprise... like Leicester the previous season it didn't seem unreasonable to expect them to take a while to recover from the pounding received during their relegation season. Instead, based largely on a solid defence which - after West Brom - boasts the second best record in the division, the Black Cats (which still doesn't sound right) find themselves a comfortable fourth. With six wins in their last seven, they look a decent bet for a play-off place at least.

Smith's competition for a striking berth has intensified this week with the arrival of Darren Byfield from Rotherham in a swap deal which saw Michael Proctor heading to Millmoor. The messageboards were less than enamoured with this news, but Proctor had been out of favour for a while and Byfield provides a quicker, more direct if cruder instrument.

Added to this, Marcus Stewart is available again after missing Sunderland's cup tie a fortnight ago through suspension. Still under pressure to reproduce his Ipswich heroics, Stewart has nonetheless hit ten this season.

Bluntest of the attacking options is "traditional English centreforward", the Scot (!) Kevin Kyle, who has hit the net nine times thus far.

In midfield, Sunderland are without Irish international Colin Healy, who suffered a broken leg against Coventry earlier in the season, and winger Matt Piper who is out with knee ligament problems. Doubtful also is Paul Thirlwell, who had an operation on a broken nose this week.

Guaranteed a place, however, is that most likeable of "footballers", Jason McAteer. No further comment required. The talented Julio Arca should play on the left; he has scored in each of Sunderland's last three games, but might regard Gavin Mahon with caution after having his ankles wrapped unceremoniously around his neck by the shaven-headed one during last season's cup tie.

Northern Ireland international Jeff Whitley should also feature in midfield, whilst Kevin Cooper could make his first start on loan from Wolves for whom he scored a late and spawny equaliser here last season. Further options in the midfield come via yet another Irishman, Thomas Butler, and flaky winger John Oster, whilst the precocious Sean Thornton is gradually finding his way back into the side having been out since October.

At the back, Sunderland have some experienced heads to choose from. Phil Babb and Joachim Björklund marshalled a solid back line at Ipswich in the cup, but Gary Breen will be back in the squad after knee ligament damage, and as a favourite of McCarthy's might be expected to feature. Northern Ireland international George McCartney is now undisputed at left back since Michael Gray left for Blackburn... Graeme Sounness undoing all his good work in the eyes of the Sunderland fans by then nicking Huddersfield starlet Jon Stead from under their noses. On the right, a groin injury to Stephen Wright has seen Darren Williams take over, but Wright was due for a fitness test prior to last weekend's postponed tie with Preston and so will presumably be available for this one. Youngster Simon Ramsden, also a fullback, has made the bench in recent weeks.

The distinctly aquatic looking Mart Poom will be in goal... with Thomas Myhre still on loan at Palace, Northern Ireland youngster Michael Ingham will be on the bench. That takes the Irish / Northern Irish playing contingent up to nine, in case you weren't counting.

Until our fortunes begin to improve, it will be difficult not to approach Saturdays without a certain trepidation; Ray Lewington's fist-waving on the official site is encouraging, but some way short of the encouragement that the anticipated loan signings might have offered. One thing guaranteed to make life even more complicated for us on Saturday would be to dish out a frosty reception to the Smith senior. Apart from the inevitability of what would follow, kid brother in a yellow shirt might not react too well. Even if his elder brother was as vindictive a bastard as I was.