IF THERE was a shred of comfort to emerge from a second chastening defeat within four days, then at least it wasn’t Darren Bent who condemned Sunderland to the most alarming result of Martin O’Neill’s 11-month tenure.
A foot injury sustained in training on Friday was the nominal reason behind Bent’s absence, although given the disintegration of the former Black Cats striker’s career at Villa Park, the team sheet inevitably prompted a cluster of conspiracy theories.
But in Bent’s fellow frontman and eventual match-winner Gabby Agbonlahor, Sunderland were presented with the perfect example of the fortitude needed to emerge from these bleak days.
Agbonlahor bleeped on Sunderland’s radar during the summer as O’Neill searched for attacking reinforcements, although it never materialised into anything concrete.
The Brummie’s desire to remain in his heartland, coupled with Paul Lambert’s keenness to retain the services of the England international, made it a no-goer.
But on Saturday, Agbonlahor morphed back into the player who enjoyed the best spell of his career under O’Neill at Villa Park and along with man mountain strike partner Christian Benteke, were by far the two most dangerous players on the pitch.
What was particularly impressive about Agbonlahor’s display was that his previous Premier League goal arrived on Bonfire Night, 2011.
Yes, the 26-year-old had netted four cup goals since then, but Agbonlahor’s confidence can hardly have been brimming.
He showed few signs of lacking self-belief though.
Agbonlahor boasted the pace and directness which Sunderland’s attack sorely lacked and showed both the bravery and wherewithal to pounce as the home defence ball-watched Benteke’s knock-down for Villa’s 57th-minute winner.
O’Neill declared afterwards that Sunderland have the “character in the side” to emerge from this period of gloom, yet there could be few better examples of showing guts and taking responsibility than Agbonlahor.
He was able to put any thoughts of doubt to the back of his mind and now Sunderland’s attackers must follow suit.
Inevitably, confidence is suffering among Sunderland’s most prominent goal hopes.
Even though the Black Cats moved the ball around with more tempo than they managed in the pitiful effort against Middlesbrough last midweek – particularly in the 10 or so minutes either side of half-time – they lacked conviction when it came to the crunch.
For arguably the first time this season, Sunderland were able to isolate their widemen one-on-one with the opposing full-back.
Yet they couldn’t make the most of it, even though Villa fielded THREE different left-backs.
Either a foot came in to nick the ball away from the red and white jersey as they attempted to hit the by-line, or the cross simply lacked sufficient quality and was intercepted by Villa’s impressive central defensive double-act of Ciaran Clark and Ron Vlaar.
For all players and manager may have bemoaned Sunderland’s fortunes afterwards, the acid test revolves around extending the opposition goalkeeper and the Wearsiders have only done that once in their last four Premier League outings.
In reversing that dismal statistic, Sunderland can follow Agbonlahor’s lead, but they can also look to an example closer to home – themselves.
Think back to last November and Sunderland’s principle shortcoming was an inability to make the net rustle.
Two factors brought a reversal to that trend.
The first was a change of manager.
Despite a minority voicing far-too-premature calls on those lines on Saturday night, that is neither a realistic or logical course of action.
In O’Neill, Sunderland supporters have got the incumbent of the dug-out they have lusted after for years – a manager with a proven track record of gaining success and one who has this club at heart.
Although O’Neill’s recent record – and in truth recent performances – bears a striking similarity to Steve Bruce’s final days, he is less than a year into his tenure and, let’s not forget, inherited a side entrenched in a relegation battle.
But it wasn’t just a new boss that saw Sunderland embark upon that captivating run at the turn of the year, it was a willingness to chance their arm.
Time and again, Sunderland would find the net via the spectacular.
Yet with the confidence currently drained out of them, no-one wants to take the responsibility of unleashing a shot, for fear of retribution from the terraces.
It’s not a case of just letting fly from anywhere either. Both Steven Fletcher and the ineffective Craig Gardner wasted promising situations by trying shots from 25 yards that just weren’t viable.
For all Seb Larsson’s first-half effort which went out for a throw-in was almost laughable, at least the Swede was prepared to shoulder the burden of goal attempts.
The only other player who grasped that concept was Lee Cattermole after a genuine display of leadership from the Sunderland skipper.
Cattermole was one of the few Sunderland players who realised the importance of pressing Villa’s youngsters, who enjoyed a far too comfortable opening 30 minutes when their confidence was able to blossom.
The midfielder also managed to limit the involvement of Stephen Ireland, no mean feat considering the former Newcastle United loanee had one of those rare days where he seemed interested.
And most impressive of all, Cattermole offered a goal threat after curling one just wide of the upright in the first half and producing Sunderland’s only shot on target in the second.
But that though was the most telling sight of the afternoon. A player without a goal in almost four years was the closest to finding the net, in a game Sunderland needed to win to get their season up and running.
As the cliché dictates, you don’t mind missing chances, it’s when you’re not creating them that you start to worry ...