Sunderland 1 Newcastle 1
James Milner dashed Sunderland’s hopes of a first derby victory on home soil in 27 years as Newcastle hit back to snatch a point.
Danny Higginbotham’s first goal in a red and white shirt had given the home side a deserved lead seven minutes after the break as they looked to end a run of five successive defeats by their closest rivals.
However, Milner played a neat one-two with Joey Barton before drilling a 65th-minute shot across Craig Gordon and inside the far post to ensure the spoils were shared.
There was almost a twist in the tail when former Magpie Michael Chopra headed an Ian Harte cross against the bar with just eight minutes remaining, but Roy Keane’s men had to settle for a point on a day when they at least restored a measure of pride.
Rarely has a Wear-Tyne derby been anticipated as eagerly as the 127th league meeting between the sides, and there was more than just local pride at stake.
Sunderland went into the game having not won a Barclays Premier League fixture in six attempts, while Newcastle’s capitulation against Portsmouth at St James’ Park last Saturday had set the alarm bells ringing.
Both managers had impressed upon their players the importance of the game, although with 47,701 hugely partisan spectators inside the Stadium of Light, there was little need for them to do so.
Keane took a gamble on winger Carlos Edwards, who had not played a senior game since tearing his hamstring at Birmingham on August 15, and handed Chopra the task of partnering in-form striker Kenwyne Jones in attack.
By the time he headed for the dressing room at the break, the Irishman must have been delighted with what he had seen, despite losing skipper Nyron Nosworthy to injury with just 25 minutes gone.
Edwards and Ross Wallace provided good service to the frontmen, and although Abdoulaye Faye handled the dangerous Jones impressively, Chopra profited in and around the big man.
He sent an overhead kick wide on 17 minutes and was just off target with a long-range effort nine minutes later.
However, his best attempt came a minute before the break when he forced keeper Steve Harper to turn away a well-struck drive from distance with the home side piling on the pressure.
Harper, who was born in Easington, a territory shared by the two clubs, had earlier kept his side level with a fine double save, scraping away Ian Harte’s cross and then blocking Grant Leadbitter’s follow-up.
He was a happy man, however, when Leadbitter powered a 33rd-minute header over with the goal at his mercy.
For their part, Newcastle were on the back foot for long periods as Sunderland worked tirelessly to close down space in midfield, although they did have chances as emergency left-back Charles N’Zogbia played his part in a series of lightning breaks.
Their best opportunity fell to Michael Owen on 28 minutes when he collected the Frenchman’s deep cross beyond the far post and although his control was not perfect, managed to get in a shot which Gordon blocked.
A feisty half ended in suitable fashion with Dickson Etuhu and Barton in each other’s faces after the Newcastle man’s late challenge, but both left the field knowing their were more important issues still to be resolved.
The Wearsiders took up where they had left off and Harper had to pluck a 48th-minute Jones header out of his top corner, although Wallace’s cross did not have enough pace on it to give the striker a real chance.
Mark Viduka flashed a 50th-minute cross just over Owen’s head with Paul McShane desperately trying to get across, but the fireworks came at the other end two minutes later.
Faye wastefully conceded possession on halfway to force David Rozehnal to concede a corner, and it was taken quickly for Leadbitter to cross to the far post for Higginbotham to head firmly past Harper.
Owen flashed a header high over on the hour with the Magpies belatedly starting to make their presence felt, although they were dealt a blow on 61 minutes when Faye limped off with a hamstring problem and was replaced by Habib Beye.
But they grabbed a lifeline on 65 minutes when Milner exchanged passes with Barton and then sent a low shot across goal and just inside the far post.
Jones flashed a shot on the turn just wide and Gordon pulled off a fine save to deny Owen as play switched rapidly from end to end.
But in a frenetic finish, Chopra was denied by the woodwork as another late show eluded Keane’s men.