Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Short on Numbers, short on fight!

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THE MANTRA from Martin O’Neill this month has been the need for extra numbers.

Even after sealing his second January capture on Monday, O’Neill was quick to stress that Sunderland were “still short” with a fortnight remaining of the transfer window.

Last night was brutal evidence of the depth – or lack of it – in Sunderland’s squad.

With just a couple of players missing, O’Neill was unable to name a full-strength bench – albeit new boys Alfred N’Diaye and Kader Mangane were both ineligible – with the Sunderland manager only willing to promote one of the club’s youngsters on merit.

But with a meagre three changes to the starting line-up, Sunderland were the antithesis of the side which comprehensively slayed West Ham last weekend.

Partly that was down to the flatness of the performance overall.

It has been a common trait throughout the Stadium of Light’s history that the team often labour meaninglessly when the ground is half full.

So it proved last night, as Sunderland meandered from side to side, with their only genuine threat coming from set pieces.

Bolton grasped the impotence of Sunderland’s play and their confidence swiftly evolved during the second half, with Marvin Sordell wasting a golden one-on-one before grabbing his tie defining double.

But Sunderland also missed their key figures and that is where the squad at O’Neill’s disposal causes genuine concern.

This wasn’t a case of O’Neill treating the FA Cup with disdain.

Two of the changes were enforced, while Seb Larsson deserved a breather after his efforts against the Hammers.

Without the leadership of John O’Shea at the back, Sunderland didn’t have that defensive resilience to contain Bolton when they began to sniff an upset during the second half.

It was a dreadful attempted clearance from Matt Kilgallon to hand Sordell his second, with the ex-Leeds man enjoying a rough couple of weeks when injuries have thrust him into the starting XI.

Fellow defensive inclusion Phil Bardsley didn’t enjoy a much better evening, with the stand-in skipper enduring a torrid time with his distribution.

But it was up front where Sunderland clearly missed the presence of the ill Steven Fletcher.

This was supposed to be the big opportunity for Connor Wickham.

The teenager has been pushing his case hard over the last month or so, not least in the first meeting with Bolton, and has perhaps been unfortunate not to start more games than two.

But Wickham struggled to shine as the like-for-like replacement for Fletcher despite all three of Sunderland’s creative figures supplying him.

In fairness to Wickham, that was part of the problem, the service to him was simply not there.

On the one occasion when James McClean delivered some accuracy on a cross, Wickham could only muster a poor header straight at Andy Lonergan on the stroke of half-time.

But other than that, Wickham was left to sniff on scraps.

Adam Johnson enjoyed some promising moments in the first half, yet there was little for Wickham to feast upon, while Stephane Sessegnon was too far away from the 19-year-old to effectively link up with him.

When the ball did make its way to the flanks, Sunderland fell into that early-season habit of leaving their centre-forward alone in the penalty area. It was no surprise that the widemen opted against delivering an early cross.

But Wickham still needed to do far more on an individual basis to make his mark on the game.

Against the greater experience and height of Zat Knight, Wickham struggled to hold the ball up or thrive in the aerial battle, while he made minimal impact when he attempted to work the channels.

Yes, the service was poor, but Sordell was hardly blessed with much greater distribution and he walked away with two goals.

A one-off performance in such a tepid team display shouldn’t detract from the giant strides Wickham has made this season.

The £8million man has been transformed from the player who looked so raw in his maiden season on Wearside and the individual work with coach Steve Guppy is clearly reaping rewards.

But O’Neill’s fears over the ramifications for Sunderland if Fletcher suffers an injury have plenty of substance.

With Louis Saha’s stop-gap signing not paying off and Fraizer Campbell set to depart at the end of the season, O’Neill is right to want to boost his striking ranks this month.

Danny Graham’s Newcastle-supporting heritage may tinge his reputation with some on the terraces, but the Swansea striker does have the pedigree of being a regular Premier League scorer and Fletcher-aside, Sunderland cannot boast any of those.

The cost of Sunderland’s slender squad has been severe.

On both occasions when Sunderland have made minimal changes for the cup competitions, they have crashed out feebly against Championship opposition and that premature elimination just grates more year-on-year.

Sunderland are not yet in a position where they can guarantee Premier League survival.

Far from it if last night’s performance is anything to go by.

But with Sunderland realistically needing to win a maximum of four more games to avoid the drop, it will take a catastrophic slump to send the Black Cats careering into the Championship.

The cup competitions, for a mid-table club like Sunderland, offer solace, a chance to follow the likes of Stoke, Cardiff and Birmingham to a Wembley final.

But yet again, like their neighbours, Sunderland have crashed out of both before the passport expiry dates have even been checked.

Perhaps new faces will bring a change of fortunes to this seeming never-ending cycle of cup underachievement.

But last night was too similar to too many cup failure in the 40 years since 1973.