Proctor brings surprise relief for Sunderland

How are the mighty falling? In a match as harsh and unforgiving as the December afternoon, Liverpool plunged to their fifth defeat in six matches at the hands of seemingly stricken Sunderland - an event that re-awoke the old Roker Roar. The thirst for the game on Wearside has not yet perished.

The winning goal by midfielder Michael Proctor, taking a second swing having air-kicked with the first, came a bare five minutes from the end after Milan Baros had levelled the score midway through the second half. This victory was Sunderland's first at home to Liverpool since August 1958.

This was an occasion for men of heart and Sunderland possessed them. Just when their spirits might have sunk as their lead was surrendered, remarkably they raised the physical tempo - in part through an inspired substitution by manager Howard Wilkinson - and were rightly rewarded in a rousing climax.

Even so, anxiety will continue to dog Wilkinson and his men for the remainder of the season. They are anything but out of the woods.

If such a victory will immeasurably lift their confidence, they owe much to the performance in goal by Jurgen Macho. He was man of the match, making four outstanding saves each side of half-time.

A crestfallen Gerard Houllier was desperately trying to come to terms with his team's continuing slide. "I cannot believe we can leave this stadium with nothing," he said, barely able to accept that a profusion of chances had slipped away.

"This is the worst moment I've experienced with this team. I feel sorry for the players and supporters, that such a performance, when they have played well, should be unrewarded. If you look at all five defeats, they could all have been avoided."

Yet a coach of Houllier's experience must know that what happened yesterday, when the weak triumph over the strong, is part of the enduring character of the game. Sunderland had likewise lost three consecutive League matches.

Arriving in wet and windy Wearside, after quarter of an hour, Liverpool's neat approach work around the edge of the penalty area spelt continuing despair for Sunderland. Danny Murphy and Vladimir Smicer, on the flanks, and Dietmar Hamann and Steven Gerrard, through the middle, were pulling Sunderland out of shape and only willpower was keeping the home backline intact.

Up front, Tore Andre Flo and the unhappy Kevin Phillips were making little ground, even though Houllier had been obliged to rest his captain Sami Hyypia, who had been feeling unwell.

There was no evident prospect that the strikers might break a sequence in which Sunderland this season had so far scored a mere four goals at the Stadium of Light. Home supporters feared the worst when a rapid triangle of passes between Smicer, Murphy and Michael Owen ended with Macho holding a sharp hook from Owen.

Yet a release from all Sunderland's woes was at hand. Pinned down on the left touchline, an error by Gerrard allowed Flo to give a return pass to Gavin McCann, who was back in the team after injury. Cutting in swiftly from an angle, McCann was met by an advancing Chris Kirkland.

With the touch of a Gascoigne, McCann proceeded nonchalantly to chip the ball over the keeper for the first goal that defied even the locals to recall the occasion of the previous one.

Liverpool responded with a flurry of attacks, only to find Macho equal to the demand. First he saved from Smicer, then Baros, who on another day, as Houlier lamented, might have had a hat-trick.

Sunderland were able to go in at half-time still in front, and three minutes into the second half Macho lunged to his right to save one-handed, again from Baros.

Five minutes later, Baros was brought down by Paul Thirlwell, and Murphy's free-kick from 25 yards flew towards the top right-hand corner of Macho's net. Somehow he managed to turn the ball round the post.

On the hour, a deflected cross from the right by Flo steepled over the goalmouth where Phillips, beyond the far post, headed goalwards. Jamie Carragher, with both arms raised above his head made an interception, the ball in fact hitting him in the face.

The referee judged him to have handled, gave him a yellow card for prolonged protest and justice was done when Kirkland saved McCann's weakly struck penalty.

Seven minutes later Baros had his best chance yet but his shot was deflected away for a corner. From a consecutive second corner the ball was poorly cleared, came back to Baros on the edge of the box and with two deft touches he had his shot in the net.

Swiftly riding this momentum, Liverpool went in search of the winner, only for Macho to save from Owen and Baros to fire wide when again well placed.

With 10 minutes remaining, Wilkinson replaced captain Michael Gray with Proctor - "to try to take the initiative, we needed to give them some pressure again".

The ruse worked within five minutes, though fortune took a hand. In a scramble at the back of the penalty area a lucky rebound off Djimi Traore's attempted clearance flew square to Proctor 16 yards out and, though his first shot never connected, his second sped a foot inside the post and all Wearside was rejoicing.

Match details

Sunderland: Macho, Wright, McCartney, Babb, Bjorklund, Gray (Proctor 80), Thirlwell, McCann, Kilbane, Flo (Stewart 89), Phillips.
Subs Not Used: Ingham, Thome, Bellion.
Goals: McCann 36, Proctor 85.

Liverpool: Kirkland, Carragher, Biscan (Diouf 63), Henchoz, Traore, Murphy, Gerrard, Hamann (Riise 45), Smicer (Diao 72), Owen, Baros.
Subs Not Used: Babbel, Dudek.
Booked: Murphy, Carragher.
Goals: Baros 68.

Att: 37,118
Ref: M Halsey (Lancashire).

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