A DERBY or not a derby? Either way, Sunday’s showdown between Sunderland and Middlesbrough at the Stadium of Light is a big old game that should provide further proof of the growing health of both clubs. After a lengthy period of stagnation on the banks of both the Wear and Tees, things finally seem to be moving in the right direction.

Since 2017, when both the Black Cats and Boro were relegated from the Premier League, the two clubs have each spent five-and-a-half seasons outside the top-flight. Sunderland’s fall was the most dramatic, encompassing four dispiriting years in the third tier, but things have not been much better for Boro, with a solitary play-off semi-final appearance under Tony Pulis all they have to show for their latest spell in the Championship.

That is simply not good enough for either club, whether in terms of their history, size, average attendance or current status within the game. At the very least, they should be challenging for a return to the Premier League, and while they have taken markedly different routes to get to their current positions in the first half of the season, the fact they both head into this weekend’s game ensconced in the top ten in the table augurs well for the remaining four months of the campaign. Sunday’s derby might take on extra significance in terms of regional bragging rights, but both clubs will hope there are more meaningful games to come in the final few weeks of the season.

Sunderland will feel they have the biggest point to prove this weekend, largely because of the way in which the reverse game at the Riverside in September turned into something of a non-event for them.

When Ross Stewart limped out of the pre-match warm-up with a thigh injury that would keep him out for the next three-and-a-half months, Tony Mowbray had to hastily redraw his plans in the space of a couple of minutes.

Patrick Roberts was thrust into a role he hadn’t really prepared for, and while Sunderland made a decent fist of things, they eventually crashed to a 1-0 defeat courtesy of a first-half strike from Riley McGree.

The Black Cats went into the game at the Riverside as marginal favourites given that they were taking on a Boro side struggling in the relegation places under Chris Wilder, but their chance was effectively taken away from them the moment Stewart’s thigh muscle snapped.

The Northern Echo: Sunderland striker Ross StewartSunderland striker Ross Stewart (Image: Ian Horrocks)

As a result, Sunday’s game can be regarded as a piece of unfinished business. Sunderland boast a superb derby record against Newcastle United, but their recent results against Boro have been much less impressive, with their last seven matches having resulted in six defeats and a draw.

Having lost at home to Swansea City last weekend, largely as a result of the straight red card that sees Luke O’Nien suspended for Sunday’s game, Sunderland could also do with a positive result at the weekend to enable them to continue looking up rather than down. After a decent festive period, the Black Cats are only three points off the top six. With the Championship table as congested as ever, though, they are also only three points off 15th.

Boro sit fourth, and head into this weekend’s game with a fair amount of wind in their sails. September’s one-goal win was a crucial victory that represented only a second success of the campaign and probably bought Wilder an extra month in his job, but the turnaround since Michael Carrick took over in late October has been nothing short of remarkable.

Carrick’s ten league games in charge of Boro have delivered seven wins, a draw and just two defeats, a run of results that have thrust the Teessiders into the heart of the play-off picture and even begun to spark thoughts of a possible run at automatic promotion.

Is a top-two finish fanciful? Probably, given the 12-point gap currently separating Boro from the automatic-promotion places and the excellent form of both Burnley and Sheffield United, who look to have established a stranglehold on the top two. All Boro can do is keep on winning though, and if they can add another three points to their tally on Sunday, there will be even more reason to believe.

Unlike in the first game, Boro will kick off Sunday’s match as favourites, a status that reflects both their brilliant recent run under Carrick and the extent to which the North-Easterner has quickly developed a settled side that knows exactly what it is doing. Assuming there are no fresh injury issues, you can guess at Carrick’s starting line-up now and be pretty confident you’d have it bang on. Despite being a managerial novice, the former Manchester United coach has taken just three months to transform his Boro side from a dysfunctional unit seemingly incapable of getting a positive result into a well-oiled winning machine.

The Northern Echo: Middlesbrough head coach Michael CarrickMiddlesbrough head coach Michael Carrick (Image: Tom Banks)

Tony Mowbray hasn’t quite been able to do that with Sunderland, but there are mitigating factors to explain the club’s ongoing inconsistency. Ellis Simms’ hurried return to Everton was a major blow, and the Black Cats continue to be afflicted by injuries to key performers. Some of those performers are returning though – Danny Batth’s return is especially timely given the absence of O’Nien – and Mowbray will fancy his chances of getting one over on his former club this weekend.

Mowbray’s strong Teesside links provide another layer to Sunday’s regional skirmish, which will be beamed out live in Sky’s lunchtime spot, further underlining the extent to which the North-East is once again commanding the national spotlight.

“Football in the North-East for all three clubs – three of the biggest clubs at the moment – is in a positive way,” said Carrick, who cannot wait for his first experience of a North-East derby day. “There are different levels, but for us, we’re in a good moment, and so are Sunderland and Newcastle. The North-East, football wise, is a good place to be.”