THE highlight of this season’s FA Cup for Sunderland will now be a dinner to commemorate a group of former players that are long retired.
It would have been nice if the side of today had been inspired to Wembley by the 1973 Cup-winning team, whose 40th anniversary tribute takes place on May 5.
But, alas, they could not even get past mid-table Championship side Bolton Wanderers after two attempts. The fourth round, never mind a final, proved beyond them.
You sometimes have to win ugly to keep the romance alive when it comes to the FA Cup. Bolton remembered this. Sunderland did not.
The fans deserve a lot better. It is not asking too much for their team to knock out a side that, on paper at least, was vastly inferior.
Martin O’Neill looked embarrassed at the end, more than likely because, gallingly, Bolton didn’t even have to play well to win by what in the end was a comfortable scoreline.
It was a turgid night on Wearside. It’s best forgotten about by everyone connected with the club.
Neither Kader Mangane nor Alfred N’Diaye was ever going to feature on a night when Sunderland’s lack of numbers was exposed yet again.
O’Neill could only name six substitutes, and this was with captain Lee Cattermole named in the squad a lot sooner than most expected him to be. Bolton had no trouble filling the seven available places on the bench.
There was no Steven Fletcher either, missing presumably through injury, and the hero of the first match at the Reebok, Connor Wickham, filled the role of striker, but came nowhere near the Scot’s high standards.
The atmosphere fitted into the category marked ghostly, due to the empty seats inside the Stadium of Light. Most of the brave souls who did come along didn’t hang around for the final whistle.
But could you blame anyone for not coming along to a cup replay on such a cold night? This is something the FA must change. Replays in this day and age are nonsense.
So it was up to the players to get the crowd going. It was, however, clear from the first couple of minutes that Bolton, who themselves rested some first-team regulars, were happy to sit tight, hit the ball long and take their chances on the break. It was a ploy that worked.
Sunderland had a lot of the ball and quite a few shots, but there was little quality.
Their first opportunity came after 24 minutes when Adam Johnson’s quick free-kick allowed Craig Gardner a shot at goal from just outside the box, which he skied over.
Then James McClean shot across goal with a right-foot effort from just inside the area.
This flurry of activity gave Sunderland some encouragement.
Johnson was shadowed by Bolton left-back Marcos Alonso, but on 21 minutes he dipped his shoulders, bought half a yard of space from his marker and his shot brought out a terrific save from Andrew Lonergan.
The resultant corner from the winger bounced in the six-yard box and past. On the touchline, O’Neill had every right to wonder why not one of his players were on hand to get a vital touch. Craig Gardner, a far more effective player in midfield, tested Lonergan with a free-kick on 32 minutes that fizzed along the ground for 40 yards before being stopped by the keeper.
Sunderland twice came close to breaking the deadlock five minutes before half-time.
The first effort came from a Johnson free-kick which he curled over the wall and into the bottom for corner ... that was until Lonergan got down low to make a terrific save.
From the corner, Johnson’s cross was long, Stephane Sessegnon collected the ball then made his way into the area before squaring a ball to Titus Bramble, whose side-footed effort was just off target. Wickham then headed Sessegnon’s cross right at Bolton’s keeper. It was incredibly one-sided, and yet the scores were level at the break.
The second half was similar to the first in that Bolton conceded a lot of free-kicks in dangerous areas.
They did this again four minutes after the restart and from 30-plus yards out, Gardner struck a magnificent shot that drifted wide at the last moment.
Then there was a little bit of a wake-up call for Sunderland as Marvin Sordell’s shot brought a smart save from Simon Mignolet on 55 minutes. They didn’t wake up enough. The pivotal moment came on 64 minutes when Jack Colback slid into a tackle he was never going to win on the edge of the box with Darren Pratley, who hit the ground as if he had been shot.
A penalty was awarded by referee Kevin Friend, which Sordell bulleted down the middle of goal.
You never felt Sunderland had it in them to get back into a tie that was over after 73 minutes.
It was all too easy for Bolton as Chris Eagles sent a pass inside Colback for Tyrone Mears to chase. He squared across goal, no Sunderland defender bothered to clear, and Sordell finished on the turn. And that was that.