IT MAY only have been nine months, but much has changed at the Stadium of Light since Darren Bent took Aston Villa’s 80,000 pieces of silver. Saturday’s see-sawing game showed the positives of Sunderland’s new look have been balanced out by negatives.
Those supporters who mentally turned the clock back to the time when they were cheering, not jeering, Bent saw a team far less reliant on one man for its goals, but without him they need more just to avoid defeat.
Sunderland again showed their determination to fight back from adversity, but manager Steve Bruce must be wishing they would not. In the last four games, his team have scored four equalisers. There was no repeat of the dozy starts which scarred otherwise impressive performances against West Bromwich Albion and Arsenal, but sloppiness nevertheless gifted Villa a head start.
That the Black Cats had to wait until the 88th-minute to level a second time made a point sweeter than it ought to have been.
When Bent wore red-and-white, Plan A was to get the ball to Darren and hope he scored. Plan B was ... err ... throw on a beach ball? A miserly defence ensured it often worked, if only at home. In his 63 appearances, Bent scored 36 of Sunderland’s 76 goals, sitting them pretty in the European places in the first half of his two campaigns, only to drop away alarmingly – once with him, once without.
On Saturday Villa showed they could score twice despite their No 9 seemingly having put his shooting boots on the wrong feet. Bent was anonymous but for one chance, yet fans who booed him mercilessly have seen that plenty of times, and celebrated him converting the solitary opportunity.
A one-two with Gabriel Agbonlahor allowed Bent to pick his spot. Substitute Keiren Westwood dived the wrong way, but stretched out his left foot. It was Westwood’s first Premier League save, and it may be some time before he produces a better one. With Simon Mignolet concussed and his nose badly broken after colliding with Emile Heskey at a corner, the former Carlisle United man could get a run of games to finally take his top-flight chance after three years as one of the Championship’s outstanding goalkeepers. There was not much more sympathy for Bent in the dressing rooms than on the terraces. “They do not come any easier than that,” said captain Stiliyan Petrov. “Nine times out of ten Darren would have put that away,” Sunderland’s Kieran Richardson added.