THE clocks went back an hour at the weekend, but Martin O’Neill probably wouldn’t have minded if they’d kept on spinning all the way back to February.
That was when Sunderland recorded their last away victory – ironically on Stoke City’s ground – to complete a sequence of five Premier League wins in six games.
Swaggering new talent James McClean notched his side’s winner that day, while Stephane Sessegnon, as usual, provided its creative fulcrum.
Fast forward to Saturday at the Britannia though and the Young Player of the Season was to be found misfiring on the wing, as he has done for so much of the campaign, while the Player of the Season languished on the bench.
It was a situation unimaginable back in August that Sessegnon – the crown jewel the club was absolutely determined to hang on to this summer – would not be an automatic pick.
But these are curious times for Sunderland and for O’Neill, who finds himself in the odd position of having added a £12million quality striker and a £10m England winger to the creative mix, only to find his team increasingly going backwards when it comes to going forwards.
Going into the Stoke game, no team had had fewer shots on target in Europe’s top five divisions this season than Sunderland and the manager finally grasped the nettle in choosing to drop Sessegnon to accommodate Lee Cattermole’s return to the side from a three-game suspension.
It was a bold selection decision and it paid dividends – though not perhaps in the way the manager might have hoped.
With Cattermole patrolling in front of the back four and Jack Colback beavering busily in front of the skipper, Stoke could find no attacking momentum and lacked the guile to break down their opponents.
The changes made were the key to Sunderland earning a clean sheet, but that flintiness in terms of defence came at the cost of expansiveness further upfield and, for yet another game, the Black Cats barely featured as an attacking force.
It guaranteed a game of precious few chances – especially given Stoke, too, have had their problems in the final third, scoring just three times at home this season.
It meant that as the two teams prepared to take the field with Eminem’s “Just One Shot” booming over the speakers, the song felt more like a match prediction than warm-up music.
The rapper’s words weren’t too far wrong either – in the first half at least – with only one shot on target to test a keeper before the break.
That came in the 21st minute after Danny Rose’s foul on Geoff Cameron allowed Charlie Adam an inswinging free-kick from the right wing.
Simon Mignolet punched the centre clear, Danny Rose charged down ex-Sunderland captain Dean Whitehead’s shot from the edge of the area and the ball squirted to Ryan Shawcross, on the right of goal, whose low shot was on target but lacked power.
Other than that, there was little to report.
Steven Fletcher forced Asmir Begovic into a hurried clearance in only the second minute, but Sunderland were unable to threaten until the 17th minute when Johnson forced a corner and, even then, the ball in from the right produced nothing.
The visitors’ best move of the half came a couple of minutes later when the ball was passed confidently forward by Colback and then moved across field before Craig Gardner drove a low ball through the six-yard box from the left which Begovic managed to gather under pressure.
Either side of the half-hour, Carlos Cuellar was involved in incidents at either end of the pitch which could have proved pivotal.
First, he popped up inside his own six-yard box to head away Michael Kightly’s left-wing curler which threatened to sneak under the crossbar, then he appeared in Stoke’s 18-yard box to glance Seb Larsson’s free-kick, driven from deep, narrowly wide of the target.
Stoke, for their part, grew frustrated by Sunderland’s strong defence and willing work. The Potters’ passing was poor and their chances extremely limited, though they had the better of possession.
They improved after the break and applied early pressure before losing their momentum in the 51st minute when full-back Marc Wilson collapsed in agony after over-stretching and falling awkwardly as he challenged innocuously for possession with Fletcher.
The game was halted for five minutes for what turned out to be a broken leg and when the defender was stretchered off and play resumed, it was Sunderland who seized the initiative – Whitehead earning a booking for a cynical tackle on Larsson after the Swede zipped past him down the right wing.
Stoke had the upper hand again by the hour-mark and kept it, despite Sessegnon’s arrival – cheered on to the pitch by Sunderland fans as a 61st-minute replacement for the injured Larsson.
The hosts carved out a good 70th-minute opening when Cameron cut inside the area from the right and pulled the ball back for Adam.
But the pass was fractionally behind the Scot and though he shinned a close-range shot on target, he could get no power on it and Mignolet was well-placed.
Just under a quarter-of-an-hour from time and Sunderland carved out their best, and only, chance of the second half when Sessegnon’s pressure won possession on the left wing and he immediately centred to the unmarked Fletcher, just to the right of the penalty spot 16 yards out.
The striker took a touch – which was all that was needed for three defenders to close in – but his curling left-foot shot was heading into the far corner of Begovic’s goal before it struck the outside of Robert Huth’s arm.
The defender’s touch was accidental and he was trying to keep his arm by his side – factors which worked in his favour in terms of the referee not awarding a penalty – but it was hard lines on Fletcher and Sunderland because, but for the touch, the visitors might have gone ahead.
As it was, that was the end of Sunderland as an attacking force as they looked to see the game out while Stoke pressed for that late winner.
They must have felt as though they had it in the 84th minute when a centre from the left was powerfully headed goalwards from six yards by Huth, but Mignolet made the save of the day in instinctively palming the ball away from danger.
Ten minutes later, into stoppage time, and Huth tried again, this time from 10 yards further out.
But Mignolet saved on his line and was then alert to dangerous substitute Matthew Etherington’s through ball in Stoke’s next move – the keeper diving out and low to flap the ball away from under Peter Crouch’s feet before Kightly dragged the loose ball wide in the final attacking move of the game.
The draw was arguably a tactical victory for Sunderland – a team which, it should be pointed out, have lost only one of the 10 games they’ve played this season and now boast the third best defensive record in the Premier League.
O’Neill’s selection and formation ensured the game would be one of precious few goal-scoring opportunities for either side, but that fact also helped Sunderland wring an away point from the contest.
Normally that point would be regarded as a valuable one, as might the one Sunderland luckily poached at the death against Newcastle the previous weekend.
But context is everything in football and only the outcome of the next few matches will be able to tell us whether these draws are useful ones or are moments of missed opportunity, of worrying under-achievement.
The concern for Sunderland fans as they watch their side endlessly toil in attack these days is that these results and performances must presage an inevitable slump – given the team threaten so rarely in games.
But a victory in the Capital One Cup against Middlesbrough tomorrow and in the league against Darren Bent’s Aston Villa at the weekend would completely transform the mood on Wearside.
As anyone who enjoyed that extra hour’s lie in yesterday knows: timing is everything.