SUNDERLAND fans raising despairing eyes to leaden skies would have seen no silver linings yesterday, no matter how intently they might have searched.
Rarely can the Black Cats have had a better chance of ending the perplexingly bad run against Everton – 17 matches without a victory going into this game – than yesterday, when the Blues fielded a significantly weakened team.
But it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Martin O’Neill, for example, started the game with the sort of system which used to earn Steve Bruce the wrath of fans – diminutive Stephane Sessegnon played ahead of a five-man midfield.
And the manager ended the match with the same, ultra-attack minded look – three strikers on the pitch and players in un-preferred positions – which also used to earn his predecessor serious criticism.
They were unusual selection choices and O’Neill’s players responded with a performance right out of Bruce’s blackest days – Sunderland flat in the first half and in danger of falling apart in the second.
What really irritated about all this was that Sunderland, on the quiet, were on the verge of a very impressive run.
Had they beaten the Blues, they would have taken five points from a possible nine in daunting games against Man City, Spurs and Everton and would have leapfrogged both Merseyside teams to sit seventh in the Premier League ahead of Saturday’s game against bottom-of-the-league Wolves.
It was an inviting prospect and the hearts of Sunderland fans must have leapt with hope when they heard David Moyes team-sheet read out.
No Nikica Jelavic, no Leighton Baines and no tormentor-in-chief Tim Cahill.
Sylvain Distin – so imperious in the two sides’ FA Cup final replay – was also confined to the bench as one of five changes ahead of Saturday’s key FA Cup semi-final game against Liverpool.
Sunderland carried a number of knocks into the game, but in the event, made only one change – David Vaughan replacing back-strain victim Nicklas Bendtner as the Wearsiders switched from a 4-4-2 to 4-5-1 formation.
That meant Phil Bardsley (groin) and Lee Cattermole (knee), risking themselves on a pitch made heavy and sticky by rain which poured down steadily all day.
It also meant Sunderland changed from a system which had been serving them well, with neither Connor Wickham nor Ji Dong-won given a chance to stand in for Bendtner.
None of this makes the decisions the manager made necessarily the right ones, or the wrong ones.
However, it does suggest O’Neill had more confidence in David Vaughan – whose self-confidence must have been knocked by his recent awful own goal – than he had in the abilities of either of his two young forwards to take the game to the home team.
It also raised the issue of how much confidence the manager had in the squad’s strength generally if he asked two far from fit players to start the match.
Neither team looked as though attack was going to be its strong suit and so it proved in a sterile opening quarter-hour.
A good crowd had turned up at Goodison Park for the Bank Holiday Monday game, but the atmosphere was incredibly muted, like a pre-season friendly – the home supporters’ minds as much on the Liverpool FA Cup semi-final this weekend as Moyes had feared his own players might be.
They sparked into life a little in the 19th minute when Cattermole earned a booking bringing down Steven Pienaar 20 yards from the Sunderland goal, but James McFadden’s free-kick hit the wall and was cleared by Colback.
The first moment of real excitement from open play did not arrive until the 27th minute, when youngster Magaye Gueye made progress into the box down the left and pulled the ball back to Steve Pienaar, who lifted his shot well over the target.
Just before the half-hour Sunderland might have made the breakthrough when Kilgallon pumped a ball up the left-hand channel, McClean picked it up and sprinted goalwards just as keeper Tim Howard slipped on the turf.
However, the American and Everton were saved by an offside flag, which must have been a very tight call.
Everton had the best chance of the game up to that point in the 36th minute when Leon Osman picked out Fellaini unmarked 10 yards from goal, but the midfielder’s shot on the turn was wide with the goal at his mercy.
Sunderland carved out an eye-catching chance in the 37th minute when Bardsley squared for Sessegnon and he tried an overhead kick at the near post which was not far away.
James McFadden produced the first real save of the game when he forced Simon Mignolet to dive across to his right to save a shot from the edge of the area.
However, the two teams went into the break on the back of a first-half as dull and lacking in penetration as fans had seen all season.
Everton upped their game in the second half, forcing two early corners from the right, but it was from a third, from the same direction, in the 52nd minute that they made the breakthrough.
There was a question mark of whether the corner should have been given – Tony Hibbert seeming to shove Jack Colback hard as the Sunderland man went to block the ball out.
But the corner was awarded and Bardsley blocked the centre with a solid header at the near post, only for it to reach Pienaar on the right who swept the ball to Leon Osman, straight in front of goal.
Osman connected perfectly with a powerful shot which Mignolet was brave in blocking with his chest.
However, the ball rebounded out left of goal where youngster Magaye Gueye crashed home a rising left-foot shot through Sunderland’s defence for his first goal for the club.
Predictably, Sunderland’s walking wounded were beginning to struggle by now – Bardsley off in the 57th and Cattermole in the 70th – and both must be doubts for Saturday’s game against Wolves.
However, replacements Kieran Richardson and Ji Dong-won did not improve matters for the visitors.
Sunderland were simply failing to hold on to the ball well and lacked any real ideas going forward.
Mignolet repeatedly pumped long goal-kicks forward to the diminutive Sessegnon and every single time they were gobbled up gratefully by the Everton rearguard, which immediately fed another home attack.
Sunderland mounted one decent counter-attack from a crunching Turner challenge on Pienaar, which saw McClean’s cross from the left hooked back in by Seb Larsson at the far post, but Ji could create nothing when the ball reached him.
And then Everton killed the game off with two goals in the space of a couple of minutes.
The first came in the 75th when the ball was squared from the right to the feet of Pienaar left of goal. He looked up, sized the situation up in an instant and curled a right-foot shot around Mignolet and into the far corner.
Worse was to follow from a near identical position.
This time the ball was supplied by Gueye with a ball over the top from the left, but Leon Osman was in almost the exact same position as Pienaar had been when he curled a shot around Mignolet to the far post – this time the ball actually going in off the upright.
In between the two goals, Sunderland brought on Wickham for Vaughan, but it made no difference to Sunderland’s play – perhaps vindicating the manager’s original decision on his striker’s value.
Everton scored their fourth in the 80th minute after great work by Pienaar near the right hand corner flag, the midfielder wining possession from McClean and giving the ball to substitute Victor Anichebe, whose first shot was blocked back to him and whose second deflected in off Jack Colback.
It pretty much summed Sunderland’s day – out of sorts, out of luck and out of ideas.
And it was incredible to think Everton had done it again – not just won, but inflicted embarrassment on Sunderland.
The players David Moyes put out had scored only nine goals between them all season – one of them from goalkeeper Tim Howard – yet by the end of the match they had scored four more.
Maybe they should put a sign up: “This is Goodison Park – abandon hope all ye Black Cats’ fans who enter here!”
The bigger picture?
Sunderland’s season seems to be subsiding now after the heroic resurgence under O’Neill which banished relegation fears.
The Wearsiders are struggling to maintain their place in the top 10 and the strains of “Que sera sera” which boomed out over the Goodison Park PA at the end of yesterday’s game only served to remind the visiting fans that though the nightmare might have been avoided this season, their dreams remain tantalisingly out of reach.