SUNDERLAND fans who made the long journey to Brighton’s American Express Stadium last night could not complain about being short-changed.
The only thing that “didn’t do nicely” for them, was the result.
More than 120 minutes of pulsating, end-to-end football produced a classic cup tie against the Seagulls on the south coast and an enterprising and energetic Sunderland side more than played their part in the entertainment.
Showing no sign of a hangover after their defeat to the Magpies, they attacked regularly, defended stoically and played spiritedly.
But in cup ties – as in derbies – the result counts above all else.
And Brighton on Tuesday was the same story as Newcastle on Saturday – a 1-0 defeat for Steve Bruce’s men after Sunderland had failed to make the most of so much good possession; so many promising openings.
“Fine margins,” sighed Bruce afterwards, reflecting on how these games could easily have gone either way.
Few who were there would have argued with his assessment.
But in the miss-is-as-good-as-a-mile world of football, fine margins are what can make the difference between a season of success and a season of failure, and so far Sunderland’s season can be categorised as a failure to launch.
Bruce did his best to kick-start the campaign last night, shaking his team up for the cup but still fielding a very strong side which included full debuts for summer signings Keiren Westwood, David Vaughan and Craig Gardner.
With Phil Bardsley suspended after his dismissal against the Magpies, Ahmed Elmohamady dropped back to take his place in defence, Sunderland deploying a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Gardner just behind Stephane Sessegnon.
Asamoah Gyan, who looked off the pace on Saturday, had to be content with a place on the bench behind a useful-looking starting XI.
But Sunderland were always facing the most obvious of banana skins in the shape of an in-form Brighton, hugely motivated at the brand new ground which has galvanised their home support.
The hosts started brightly but, in the third minute, Sunderland had the first clear-cut chance – Seb Larsson feeding Sessegnon, who flashed a low shot across the face of goal from the right when it seemed certain he would score.
For Brighton boss Gus Poyet, the turning point of the whole game came as early as this. “That opening changed it completely in terms of our confidence,” he suggested. “Sunderland had a great early chance to score, didn’t take it, and that gave us a boost.”
Brighton showed what they were capable of two minutes later when impressive striker Craig Mackail-Smith’s long-range effort was only parried by Westwood and the keeper had to be grateful Ashley Barnes’s follow-up flew over the crossbar.
Those two moves though established the pattern for the rest of the half – both teams taking it in turns to go for goal – but neither ever quite making it able to count.
Brighton would have been happy to have dominated up to the quarter-hour, but, in the 16th minute, Sunderland produced their best passing move so far, Vaughan finding Kieran Richardson with a long ball to the left wing, Larsson heading the resulting cross wide.
Less than a minute later, Sunderland worked the ball up to the Brighton box and this time it was Sessegnon who got in a low shot which keeper Casper Ankergren just managed to keep out.
It was not a match in which momentum could be maintained by the one side.
Brighton were getting on the front foot, but, in the 23rd minute, Vaughan was superb in winning the ball in three separate challenges before finding Sessegnon, who could not wriggle a shot on target.
Vaughan continued to shine, putting in a great cross from the left which needed only to be nodded home, but – much to the Bruce’s frustration – flashed past everyone.
Sunderland got on top and stayed there beyond the half-hour as Brighton threatened to run out of steam – Gardner nodded wide; Vaughan blasted one one over after cutting inside.
But Brighton had a great chance to get in front in the 35th minute when Elmohamady and Westwood went for the same ball from a right-wing cross and it dropped in no-man’s land as the two collided – Mackail-Smith clipping the loose ball wide.
Half-time was reached with the play as evenly balanced as it had started and both sides were deservedly applauded off the pitch.
Perhaps encouraged by getting to the break on level terms, the Championship side made the better start after the resumption.
Only a brilliant challenge by Ferdinand denied Barnes within seconds of the resumption and then, in the 50th minute, another ball over the top released Mackail-Smith, who surged in on goal from the right and unleashed a shot which beating Westwood but came back into play off the far post.
After such a barnstorming start from Brighton, Bruce decided to be proactive, taking off midfielder Cattermole in the 53rd minute, bringing on striker Connor Wickham and looking to give the Wearsiders an outlet up front.
The balance of the game continued to sway to and fro, with neither side able to land the knockout blow, but Brighton were convinced they had a penalty when Inigo Calderon was brought down by Westwood in the 64th minute, only for referee Andy D’Urso to decide it was a dive.
“It was a penalty,” said Poyet. “My player went down, but if he hadn’t he would have had a broken leg!”
Sessegnon produced Sunderland’s most threatening moment of the game in the 73rd minute when he cut inside from the left and saw his powerful right-foot shot from 10 yards blocked at the near post by Ankergren
With little happening, Bruce brought on Ji Dong-won for the fading Vaughan and moved Sessegnon out to the left wing, hoping he would get some joy out of the hosts’ veteran sub, 38-year-old Maurico Taricco, at right-back.
In the four minutes of stoppage time, Sunderland almost made the breakthrough – Gardner’s shot was blocked, Larsson won a corner, the ball was put in from the right and Elmohamady headed over when well placed.
The Black Cats’ moment had gone.
Brighton got their noses in front five minutes into extra time when Alan Navarro crashed in a cross from the right and Mackail-Smith peeled free at the far post to head past the exposed Westwood.
Sunderland produced nothing in the remainder of the opening half of extra time, save a Larsson cross from the right to the far post just before the break which Ji headed unconvincingly wide.
In the final 15 minutes, Bruce brought on out-of-favour Gyan as a last resort, a weary Gardner trudging off the pitch, but the record signing looked as lethargic as he had against Newcastle.
Six minutes into the second half of extra time, Sessegnon was allowed to rough up Pointer to tee up Wickham 10 yards out, but the youngster spurned his chance to become an instant hero, firing his shot wastefully high into the stands.
Sunderland were pretty much a spent force at that stage and it could have got even worse in the final few seconds when former Magpie Kazenga LuaLua might have grabbed Brighton’s second.
But it was bad enough as it was.
In the space of 72 hours, sorry Sunderland had lost the derby they desperately wanted to win and exited the cup competition they especially hoped to do well in.
It’s a horrible double blow and Bruce must hope that setbacks don’t come in threes.
Having lost to the Magpies and the Seagulls, the Black Cats must look to avoid a serious case of bird flu when they face to the Swans this weekend.
Lose to Swansea and Sunderland will have the Blues around the corner in more ways than one.