AMONG a first-team quartet included for Sunderland Under-21s last night, only Keiren Westwood could be classified as an unfeasible inclusion for this weekend’s crunch encounter against Norwich.
A fourth Premier League defeat in six last Saturday has put places up for grabs for a game where Sunderland can ill-afford to register anything less than three points.
For Phil Bardsley, Kader Mangane and David Vaughan, a bitterly cold evening at the Stadium of Light was an opportunity; a chance to prove they offer solutions towards Sunderland’s increasingly alarming winless run.
But there was little in terms of genuine conclusions from a 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough – a result which left Kevin Ball’s side still without a victory in 2013.
Such is the seismic gulf in quality between the U21 league and the Premier League, that none of the trio needed to hit anything approaching top gear.
Bardsley and particularly Mangane, strolled through the game, with the latter barely breaking into a sweat, other than the odd foray forward from halfway.
The on-loan Al-Hilal centre-half was the same in his first appearance for the U21s a fortnight ago. Until he is tested against better opposition, no real judgement can be made on the 29-year-old.
Bardsley at least attempted to up the tempo with a couple of promising bursts during a first half where clear-cut chances were non-existent.
Both received treatment during the second half – Mangane for a bloody nose and Bardsley for a boot in the chest – yet they managed to complete the full 90 minutes, along with Vaughan.
The Welsh midfielder was his usual self; neat, tidy and looking to sweep the ball out to the flanks.
But the trio were more intent on getting minutes under their belts than making a definitive statement.
Highly-rated frontman Mikael Mandron led the line with plenty of hustle and bustle in a whole-hearted display, yet Sunderland were unable to muster a shot on target.
Other than a Craig Lynch effort from inside the area, scuffed well wide of the far post after a promising run from Bardsley, Sunderland offered little to set pulses racing.
Boro were similarly subdued, Luke Williams seeing a deflected low shot from 25 yards comfortably gathered by Westwood.
But after the bare minimum of noteworthy action, it took just 20 seconds of the second half for Sunderland to go ahead.
Boro failed to deal with a Jordan Laidler cross from the right and Mikael Mandron managed to lift the ball over outrushing goalkeeper Jayson Leutwiler before Noble made sure from a yard out by tapping it into an empty net.
Noble went close again in the 55th minute after letting fly with an angled drive from the edge of the area, following Reed’s headed interception.
But Boro began to enjoy a sustained spell of possession and they eventually drew level in the 74th minute, albeit with a hint of offside.
Winger Adam Reach played a ball in behind the Sunderland back-line for substitute Bradley Fewster, with the linesman’s flag debatably remaining down.
There was no doubting Fewster’s finish though, as he descended on Westwood from the right and lifted the ball delicately into the far corner.
Boro were the brighter side in the closing stages and went closest to a winner in the 80th minute when Curtis Main got away from Mangane down the right, cut inside and let fly with a powerful shot towards the far corner which soared a couple of feet over the top.
SUNDERLAND: Westwood, Bardsley, Ferguson, Vaughan, Harrison, Mangane, Reed, Laidler, Noble, Mandron, Lynch (Mitchell 81) Subs not used: Marrs, Wilson, Gorrin, Honeyman
BORO: Leutwiler, Bennett, Halliday, Waters (Brobbel 58), Burgess, Gibson, Jones (Fewster 65), Morris, Main (Sirrell 85), Williams, Reach. Subs not used: Ripley, Jackson