The flair players decided a feisty Tyne-Wear derby, but perhaps not in the way we expected, writes Stuart Rayner
FLAIR players can be awkward for managers. At St James’ Park, Martin O’Neill trusted his and perhaps wished he had not.
Alan Pardew took the opposite approach and must now be regretting it.
In the first half it seemed Stephane Sessegnon would win the Tyne-Wear derby for Sunderland.
Aided and abetted by his petulance, Hatem Ben Arfa was a major factor in ensuring they did not.
It was hard to escape the feeling that, had he started, Newcastle United might have celebrated victory rather than a draw which felt like one.
While the police seem to insist this derby is played earlier and earlier, Offcom might soon be demanding the opposite. For the first 25 minutes, it was post-watershed television.
From Lee Cattermole in the 40th second to Mike Williamson in the 23rd minute, six were shown yellow cards.
Such a tempestuous affair was crying out for a foot on the ball.
With Ben Arfa and Danny Guthrie on the bench, Sessegnon was the only option.
Steve Bruce always appreciated the playmaker’s talent but struggled to find how best to use it.
It is the same problem Alan Pardew is finding with Ben Arfa.
O’Neill’s solution has been simple – play Sessegnon where his team can best give him the ball.
Since joining in January 2011, the Benin international has been an ever-present. Not even the flight delaying his arrival from Ethiopia until Friday afternoon was going to stop that.
In recent games Sessegnon has been a lone striker, but yesterday, O’Neill selected Nicklas Bendtner to allow him to drop deep.
It meant he had more touches than most and Sunderland dominated midfield.
Until Simon Mignolet saved from Fabricio Coloccini in the 39th minute, it was one-way traffic and Sessegnon was directing it.
Pardew responded by throwing on Ben Arfa at half-time.
The Magpies manager prefers reliable workhorses such as Jonas Gutierrez and Ryan Taylor, but the Frenchman has the X factor.
Ben Arfa had been on only 14 seconds when he beat Kieran Richardson and won a corner to start a period of prolonged pressure on Sunderland’s goal.
The Black Cats had just had their only real moment of the second half – a brilliant Tim Krul double save – when Sessegnon lost his head.
As Cheick Tiote snapped at his heels, he swung his right arm, then his left, a fist making contact.
It was unquestionably a red card offence, though disappointing to see Newcastle’s “warrior” tumble to the turf so easily.
The red card will end Sessegnon’s ever-present status and rule him out of the FA Cup quarter-final on Saturday week.
In the short-term, it started a Newcastle siege, creating extra space for Ben Arfa’s magic feet. Richardson and James McClean doubled up on the right-winger to no effect. Brilliant skill took him past the latter, a nutmeg around the former before Michael Turner slid across.
Mignolet saved at the near post when Ben Arfa again beat both easily. Yohan Cabaye failed to make the most of more good work, while McClean escaped a penalty-area foul on the Frenchman.
It was left to Shola Ameobi to play his traditional role of derby hero, but there was no doubting the inspiration.
Pardew said: “I have to find a way of getting him into the team and contributing in the way he did.
“He was massive in getting the other team on the back foot, making space elsewhere and getting defenders to double-up on him.”
He would be well advised to follow the example of his opposite number and just play him. The rest will look after itself.