YESTERDAY Sunderland delivered an excellent performance reminiscent of the football they started to produce when Martin O'Neill arrived on Wearside a year ago this week. The only problem was, it came 45 minutes too late to get anything for it.
There was real relief in the Norwich City cheers at the full-time whistle. Even after giving their hosts a huge head start, Sunderland were unfortunate not to at least take the point which would have drawn them level with Newcastle United today.
Far important than local rivalry is the Black Cats’ need to at last drag themselves out of the mother of all FA Cup hangovers. They must hope the confidence they can take from their second-half display proves more valuable than the points they could not.
When they finally started to play, Sunderland gave an in-form side a real fright – without needing an opposition red card either. Until Craig Gardner’s 45th-minute goal, it was impossible to imagine a positive gloss on their dismal display.
At that point, almost the whole team had been sloppily wasting possession. Phil Bardsley and Sebastian Larsson had words after running into one another after chasing the same ball.
Inspired by Gardner and Danny Rose, the second period was totally different.
It took just seven minutes for Norwich, seven unbeaten at kick-off, to score.
Rose’s rash tackle on Steven Whittaker allowed Robert Snodgrass to curl in an excellent free-kick. Grant Holt failed to flick the ball on, but it hit the hand of his marker Carlos Cuellar and looped up for ex-Newcastle defender Sebastien Bassong to stab in as Simon Mignolet rushed out.
There was no lack of effort or ambition from Sunderland. Adam Johnson tried his luck from distance at 0-0, and James McClean attempted an overhead kick but from wide of the goal, put it wider.
When a poor Bassong clearance presented him with a shooting opportunity, Stéphane Sessègnon squirted it out for a throw-in. But even Mignolet’s passing was poor, picking out Snodgrass to run down the middle until Rose’s excellent recovering tackle.
It took until the 28th minute for a Sunderland chance worthy of the name and unsurprisingly it came from Rose, Larsson pulling a corner into his path. Mark Bunn was wrong-footed, but changed direction and saved.
Rather than build on that, Sunderland conceded again. Anthony Pilkington was threaded in by Bradley Johnson’s excellently-weighted pass, turning Cuellar and picking his spot.
So toothless have the Black Cats been this season that even with 53 minutes left, it was hard to see them avoiding a 20th winless game in the 22-match sequence started by March’s FA Cup exit to Everton.