MIDDLESBROUGH scored a late winner to edge out Sunderland's Under-21s at the Stadium of Light on Monday night.

There was no repeat of the bonkers encounter from last season, when Middlesbrough won 7-5, but Boro again came out on top, George Gitau's deflected late goal sealing a 2-1 victory after Tommy Watson had cancelled out Sonny Finch's opener.

The win lifts Boro to seventh in Premier League 2 and all but secured Mark Tinkler's side a place in the play-offs. Sunderland, who are 10th, remain likely to qualify for the end of season shoot-out.


Rarely has a Sunderland Under-21 fixture passed this season without some first team involvement. Hemir, Eliezer Mayenda, Bradley Dack, Corry Evans and Aji Alese have all featured for Graeme Murty’s side. The sight of seniors playing for Mark Tinkler’s Middlesbrough hasn’t been as frequent, though US striker Matthew Hoppe was included in the recent draw at Fulham.

There was no Hoppe in the squad at the Stadium of Light, though, and no senior players in either team. Boro defender Jack Hannah, 21, was the oldest starter. That didn’t mean the game was absent of players with first team involvement. In-form Watson started for the Black Cats and several players who have featured in Michael Carrick’s Boro squads this season were involved for Tinkler’s side.

Sonny Finch and Pharrell Willis, who have both recently returned from injuries, started, as did Luke Woolston and Law McCabe, regular first team substitutes this term.

And it was one of those players, Finch, who opened the scoring just after the half hour mark. The attacker – highly rated by Carrick – was alive in the box and forced Henry Fieldson into a mistake, the defender’s pass intercepted by Finch and ricocheting into the bottom corner. Finch had the ball in the net for a second time late in the half, coolly slotting home after good work from Willis, but the forward was denied by the assistant’s flag.

Fieldson almost made a second costly error in first half stoppage time but this time Adam Richardson came to his rescue. The defender’s pass from the back was tame and pounced on by AJ Bridge, whose first time shot was tipped on to the post by the home keeper at full stretch.



Finch’s first half goal took his tally to five in as many outings for the Under-21s – and he wasn’t the only form forward on the pitch.

Willis and Watson were both knocking on the first team door last season before their progress was halted by injury. Watson played for the Black Cats under Mowbray, while Willis caught the eye of Carrick after the head coach’s Boro arrival and a debut and new contract followed. After the highs came the low of injuries and both faced lengthy spells on the sidelines, but have impressed their respective first team bosses since returning, with Willis playing his way onto Boro’s first team bench.

The Londoner had scored two and created two more in just six Under-21s outings prior to the Sunderland trip and was lively in the first half, teeing up Finch for the goal that was disallowed. But the winger’s night only lasted 45 minutes, replaced at the break by Sam Collins.

As for Watson, Dodds recently admitted the forward is likely to “come into his thinking” – and he again did his chances no harm here.

Watson was Sunderland’s most likely route to goal in the first half, flashing one left foot shot just wide and soon after getting the better of Gitau before delivering a teasing cross that deserved a finish. And it was Watson who scored Sunderland’s leveller just before the hour mark, cutting in from the left and finishing clinically, his third goal in as many games.

The other form attacker on show was Boro’s Ajay Matthews. The Teessider is only 17 but has impressed in the Under-21s ranks, with four goals and two assists from 11 appearances, just six of which have been starts. There have been a further five goals in just seven outings for the Under-18s, form that last week led to reports of transfer interest, with Fabrizio Romano claiming a “host of Europe’s best clubs are keen”.

It wasn’t an attacker who came up with the deciding goal on Monday night, though, rather a full-back. Gitau was on the spot to deflect in McCabe’s shot from the edge of the area after a corner from the left nine minutes from time.


These teams will both finish in the top 16 of the 26-team PL2 table, which means they’ll compete in the play-offs of the newly restructured competition at the end of the season. Indeed, there remains a chance they’ll face each other in the first knock-out game.

The top 12 teams will also be invited to take part in next season’s Premier League International Cup competition.

Boro wrap up their regular campaign at home to Crystal Palace, while Sunderland play Liverpool at home before a trip to Blackburn