Middlesbrough 1 Sunderland 0
Middlesbrough finally got round to winning their first Premier League game of 2017 as the so-called “derby of the doomed” represented a new nadir in David Moyes’s increasingly troubled Sunderland tenure.
Sunk by Marten de Roon’s early goal, Sunderland fans were left calling for their manager’s sacking and contemplating an imminent relegation to the Championship which, depending on results, could be confirmed as early as Saturday tea-time.
As the visiting supporters' "We want Moyes out" shouts gathered both volume and momentum, Steve Agnew and Boro were left clinging to a shred of renewed hope but, six points short of a position of safety, still seem destined to join their north-east neighbours in the second tier.
The evening began on a sad note with a tribute to Boro's former defender Ugo Ehiogu, who died of a cardiac arrest last week at the age of 44. As pictures of Ehiogu's goals and tackles filled the ground's big screen and time seemed temporarily turned back, Boro fans indulged in those once so familiar chants of "Ugo, Ugo".
A minute’s applause in Ehiogu’s memory prefaced the kick-off of what had been dubbed the least interesting Tees-Wear encounter in a generation. With Boro nine points adrift of 17th-placed Hull City and Sunderland 12 in arrears, optimism certainly proved an elusive commodity.
A defiant Moyes may have claimed to be a “better manager now” than during his Everton, Manchester United and Real Sociedad days but, with not too many Sunderland fans buying into that notion, he needed to start proving it here.
His side started brightly enough, with Boro firmly on the back foot and Jermain Defoe – seeking a first goal in nine games – swiftly testing Brad Guzan's reflexes courtesy of a low left-foot volley from Didier Ndong's chipped pass.
Unfortunately for Moyes, false dawns have been something of a recurring theme on Wearside of late and this soon seemed simply the latest in a long line.
Things began to go wrong for the visitors when De Roon scored at the end of Boro's first real attack. It began with a wonderfully chipped through ball dipped over the top of Sunderland's defence by the unattended Adam Clayton and concluded with Agnew smiling, quite possibly for the first time since Saturday's 4-0 thrashing at Bournemouth.
Having bisected Billy Jones and John O'Shea before seamlessly controlling that dropping delivery with his chest, De Roon struck. Taking advantage of Jordan Pickford's advance from his line, he extended his right boot and poked the ball past the goalkeeper.
Pickford is extremely useful with his own feet and was soon using them to mop up the fallout from some haphazard defending in front of him, while also performing wonders to block Stewart Downing’s goalbound shot.
By now the away end was in full voice. “Moyes out, we want Moyes out,” they chorused militantly, a refrain only drowned out by Boro loyalists who, as half-time approached, left the stadium echoing to haunting chants of “Ugo, Ugo”.
After cutting an increasingly uneasy figure in the technical area, Sunderland's manager looked relieved to head down the tunnel at the interval. Admittedly Boro survived a minor fright when Guzan repelled Ndong's long-range shot but the bookings collected by O'Shea and Darron Gibson, for a couple of cynical fouls, reflected the frustration mounting among Moyes's players.
O'Shea and his central defensive partner, Jason Denayer, had found themselves ruffled by Álvaro Negredo, whose astute hold-up play was enabling Agnew's midfielders to make some dangerous late dashes into the box.
Not that Agnew was in any position to relax; indeed, Boro’s coach looked suitably relieved when Guzan repelled Wahbi Khazri’s beautifully curling free-kick at the start of the second period.
The general air of tension prompted Robbie Stockdale, Moyes's sidekick, to become embroiled in a verbal altercation with Agnew's formidable assistant Joe Jordan as Sunderland began taking another turn at dominating possession.
Downing, who enjoyed some very good moments and probably deserved a goal, responded by using his guile and experience to gradually readjust the power balance Boro’s way as Moyes seemed reduced to a study in stress.
"Are you watching, Ellis Short, " sang those away fans, before making their message to Sunderland's owner plain.