A LETHARGIC air has circled around Adam Johnson since he returned from the treatment table against Wigan six weeks ago.
Admittedly, an unrealistic burden of responsibility has been loaded onto Johnson by his confidence-deprived team-mates, who have been too eager to pass the buck in sheer hope that the 25-year-old could pluck a moment of magic from thin air.
But there hasn’t been sufficient to justify Sunderland’s £10million outlay in a player earmarked to complement Stephane Sessegnon and James McClean as a deadly trio.
The fact both team-mates and managers have had to continually back Johnson to come good has spoken volumes in itself.
A trip to his former employers didn’t kick-start Johnson into action.
Neither did a Tyne-Wear derby, nor a meeting with his boyhood mentors.
But what will surely have prompted a few glances in the mirror was Roy Hodgson’s decision to prefer a 17-year-old with just 10 Premier League starts under his belt.
Perhaps an England snub had no bearing on Johnson.
Perhaps it was the team meeting at the Academy of Light last Tuesday when Martin O’Neill addressed his players on their attacking woes.
Regardless of the motivation, Johnson finally came to the party in a Sunderland shirt at Goodison Park on Saturday and showed the hunger, guile and precision which have been so noticeably absent.
At the very least, the winger became the first Sunderland player to hit the back of the net in more than eight hours after he showed the composure and confidence in front of goal which was painfully missing from three of his team-mates in the first half.
But the goal was the culmination of a productive 45 minutes from Johnson.
He slalomed down the right away slickly away from the attentions of Leighton Baines and cutely continued to pick out Sunderland’s focal point Steven Fletcher on the break.
There was an end product, too – capping off a slick move forward with a beautifully-weighted reverse pass into the path of Jack Colback, who could only shoot tamely into the arms of Tim Howard.
Hearteningly, Johnson wasn’t a one-man band.
It may seem lopsided to be dishing out praise, given Sunderland succumbed to a third successive defeat, threw away a lead for the fifth time this season and remain entrenched in the bottom five.
But such has been the draining manner of Sunderland’s performances over the opening three months of the campaign, the first shoots of recovery were evident on Saturday.
Like Johnson, Sessegnon produced his finest performance so far after continually falling below last season’s moments of magic.
In the first five minutes alone, Sessegnon produced some slick inter-play with Fletcher and had a clear sight on goal – albeit he fluffed his lines – and then twice span on a sixpence away from Everton defenders, who made the mistake of getting too tight to the Benin international.
He continued to find room in the hole and should have carved open a clear-cut opportunity on the counter-attack in the second half, but criminally over-hit a through-ball to Johnson.
But at least Sessegnon’s mind is working in the right way. The execution will come as the confidence gradually begins to eke back.
McClean made the slightest contribution of the trio, yet with Coleman backing off the Ireland winger, he still managed to deliver several teasing crosses from the left, particularly in the first half.
Coleman was not alone in providing Sunderland’s attack with a helping hand.
Everton’s back-line was recklessly gung-ho and should have been punished far more for pushing up to halfway.
That was particularly the case in the second half as Sunderland again fell into the trap of sitting back and attempting to defend a slender one-goal lead.
As it did against West Ham, Swansea and Liverpool, it was to cost the Wearsiders.
But then, in fairness to Sunderland, they looked comfortable defending their advantage.
The outstanding John O’Shea and Carlos Cuellar continually headed clear anything which dared to venture into the Sunderland penalty area.
And with Colback and Seb Larsson working feverishly to restrict any space in the middle of the park or throw their bodies on the line, Everton looked laboured – the passes continued to go astray and the frustration seeped down from the terraces.
But the introduction of Apostolos Vellios produced a restructuring of Everton’s line-up that Sunderland failed to adjust to.
With Fellaini coming from a deeper position behind two strikers, the Belgian was allowed space for the first time in the game and unleashed a drilled shot that skidded into the far corner.
The domino collapse from that equaliser was alarming and inevitably prompted questions over Sunderland’s character.
Yet it wasn’t guts or determination that Sunderland were lacking, as some supporters crowed afterwards.
Confidence probably played a part in the quick-fire double which broke Sunderland’s hearts, yet the lack of fortune which accompanies struggling sides was also surely attributable, as the ball slipped through O’Shea’s legs and fell perfectly into the path of Nikica Jelavic for the winner.
Still the bile will spew from the ignorant and impatient this week – either predicting Sunderland’s imminent demise from the top flight or calling for O’Neill to be axed.
There are undoubtedly serious concerns for O’Neill to address given Sunderland’s position and points tally and he has to ensure that the dejection from Saturday does not limit a much-improved display to a one-off.
Points need to be put on the board – and fast.
Yet there was some progression on show from Sunderland and defeat against a side with genuine aspirations of reaching the Champions League, should not prompt further doom-mongering.
For the first time this season, Sunderland showed signs that the impressive attacking force on paper can be converted into an impressive attacking force on the pitch.