Chopra banishes demons to give Sunderland victory
Sunderland 2 Middlesbrough 0
Redemption being one of sport's more resonant clichés, there was a rush on pencil sharpeners in Sunderland on Saturday afternoon. It came shortly after Michael Chopra received a first-time short pass from Kieran Richardson, held off Middlesbrough's David Wheater and slid the ball into the corner to give Sunderland a lead they would not let go.
Just in case you have been away, Chopra only returned to the side after spending some time away himself, at Tony Adams' Sporting Chance clinic. After Chopra had an argument with his bride Heather on their summer wedding day, his marriage hit trouble and from there Chopra found solace – or not – in Newcastle bars and in backing horses about to come in fifth. There was also a three-game suspension for being sent off in pre-season.
It has not been an uplifting time for the 24-year-old or for his wife. They have a seven-month old son. But Chopra has not quite touched Paul Gascoigne levels of despair and his sprightliness as a substitute revealed a certain sporting well-being. His 81st-minute goal was followed by another in injury time as Sunderland completed a first home victory of the season, one that their overall performance did not merit.
"Of course, I have had a chat, but it will always come down to the player, and I don't think it's been that major," said Chopra's manager, Roy Keane, finding some perspective. "He has been away for a week or two, cleared his head and got that look in his eye again – the old Chops is back."
Keane himself knows a thing or two about unsmiling eyes. He once spent a night in a Manchester police cell four days before an FA Cup final. "They all tried to settle me down, Cloughie [Brian Clough], Alex Ferguson," he said, "they all failed. In the end it was down to me, eventually the penny dropped that you can't keep doing stuff off the pitch. I gave up drinking completely. It was easy – everyone else was pleased."
Keane added that it actually took him "a while to get used to it," but Chopra's realisation came fast. "When I had that week away I went to watch Bristol City v QPR," he said. "I was just sitting in the stand looking back on everything, thinking. It made me realise the Premier League is the only place to be. It's given me a bit more of an incentive to kick on and do well. I'm feeling much happier in myself, I'm playing with a smile on my face again, which is how I used to play."
Had Stewart Downing scored a 75th-minute penalty, Chopra might have been a side issue. But Downing missed and Boro's fluency was unrewarded.
So Sunderland skipped into the top half. But 11,000 empty seats were a statement of sporting apprehension as well as a reminder of the financial times.
Goals: Chopra (81) 1-0; Chopra (90) 2-0.
Sunderland (4-1-3-2): Gordon; Chimbonda, Nosworthy, Ferdinand, McCartney; Tainio (Chopra, 45); Malbranque, Whitehead, Richardson; Cissé (Murphy, 69) Diouf (Reid, 69). Substitutes not used: Fulop (gk), Bardsley, Collins, Leadbitter.
Middlesbrough (4-4-1-1): Turnbull; Wheater, Huth, Pogatetz, Taylor; Aliadière, Digard (Shawky, 69) O'Neil, Johnson (Hoyte, 69); Downing; Alves. Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Riggott, Walker, Arca.
Referee: H Webb (Yorkshire).
Booked: Sunderland Richardson, Chopra; Middlesbrough O'Neil, Shawky, Huth.
Man of match: McCartney.