JUST as Hurricane Sandy headed away from New York, storm clouds gathered over the Stadium of Light last night as Sunderland’s underwhelming season lurched towards crisis.
Fasten your seat-belts, it looks like being a bumpy ride.
For the second derby in a matter of weeks, Sunderland were second-best on home turf and as Championship club Boro progressed to the last eight of the Capital One Cup, Martin O’Neill was left to contemplate a failure to launch in attack which has seriously compromised Sunderland’s ambitions this season before October is out of the door.
As Boro supporters partied high in the North Stand, the inquests were already beginning in the Sunderland dressing room as to how the team, with so many attacking options on paper, could be performing so embarrassingly in front of goal during games.
Ex-Black Cat Grant Leadbitter, captain on the night, was last off the pitch and he deserved the plaudits from both sets of fans after a man-of-the-match performance.
He was the chief stringer of clever passes and through-balls for his side, at times pretty much running the game, but alongside him Nicky Bailey also shone while Faris Haroun and Scott McDonald were constant threats in attack.
The Sunderland manager could not be reproached for negativity in either selection or tactics, making five changes to the side which ground out an away point at Stoke on Saturday.
Keiren Westwood, Phil Bardsley, Louis Saha, David Vaughan and Stephane Sessegnon all started the game in what was an attacking-looking team.
So it proved – within the first two minutes, Sunderland had had three attempts at goal.
Within seconds of kick-off Steven Fletcher had wrestled possession from Leadbitter and won a free-kick on the left-wing which Adam Johnson curled in and Jason Steele punched away.
A corner from the right from Johnson forced Steele into another block and then Louis Saha scooped a loose shot over the bar as Sunderland looked to put their recent lethargy in attack behind them.
It wasn’t a flash in the pan either, the Wearsiders kept up the pressure with Johnson looking far happier on the left-wing and Vaughan passing delightfully.
An eye-catching reverse pass from Bardsley set Sessegnon galloping down the right flank in the seventh minute with Boro once again being tested by the eventual cross.
But Sunderland were unable to sustain that early charge and Boro eased into the game on the back of some good passing, playing football on the front foot, live-wire Faris Haroun producing a shot in the 11th minute from the right which Westwood blocked at the near post.
Scott McDonald was booked on the quarter-hour for simulation when he went down too easily at the feet of John O’Shea but the Aussie striker almost posted a perfect reply when he drilled a 35-yarder narrowly wide of Westwood’s goal frame.
Next it was Leadbitter’s turn with a 30-yard effort which again wasn’t too far away.
It was a good spell for Boro and they continued positively – a feature of their football throughout the game was a lack of elaboration and a willingness to shoot on sight, features that were all too often absent from the home side’s game as it progressed.
Midway through the first half and Sunderland regained some rhythm,to offer the prospect of a really open cup tie – the Black Cats showing some neat touches in their approach work, Boro looking dangerous on the counter-attack with Leadbitter and Bailey bristling with confidence in midfield.
Cattermole burst through to the edge of the Boro area in the 26th minute and fed Saha whose shot was blocked out for a corner but Boro handled it well and passed confidently out of defence.
At this stage, the game was well-balanced and despite the lack of goals as the half-hour came up, this was comfortably among the most entertaining 30 minutes football Sunderland fans had watched all season.
That sense of enjoyment was not to last.
There were warnings – in the 29th minute McDonald picked up a loose ball and curled it against Westwood’s crossbar and over from 25 yards out.
Sunderland replied in the 32nd when Fletcher won a corner and Johnson’s centre from the left was headed down and wide at the near post by O’Shea.
But Boro’s breakthrough came in the 38th minute when Haroun went on a run from his own half which Cattermole tracked but could not halt.
The ball was ushered through to Ishmael Miller on the right of goal who got past Jack Colback and he surged into the box before firing in a low shot from a narrow angle which McDonald at the near post diverted up and over Westwood, who had gone down in anticipation of the low shot.
Sunderland responded and Sessegnon set up an attack neatly but it came to nothing and once again Boro counter-attacked dangerously.
The half closed with Johnson curling a cross from the right to the far post, Fletcher getting up well to head on target but straight at Steele and boos rang around the ground as the teams trooped off.
Sunderland needed to be better in the second-half and they started in the right spirit – even if Saha’s 46th minute shot was skied and Fletcher’s effort as he lay on the turf a minute later was once again straight at the Boro goalkeeper.
Leadbitter though continued to shine and by the time the 50th minute arrived, Boro had carved out a couple of half-chances of their own as the visitors once again settled confidently into their stride.
As the hour mark approached Sunderland’s attacking threat had faded badly and that was perhaps a factor which encouraged booing around the stadium when first David Vaughan and then John O’Shea hit long, directionless balls upfield.
In the 60th minute James McClean was introduced at the expense of the misfiring Saha and Sunderland threatened to spark into life – Sessegnon whistled a shot narrowly wide almost immediately and Johnson looked to ask questions of Boro defenders down the right.
The visitors had barely featured as an attacking force after those opening few minutes of the second half and Nicky Bailey had words with himself after blasting a long rang shot well over the bar in the 70th minute .
In the 71st minute Sessegnon won a corner and Cattermole blazed the ball narrowly wide from distance but this was sniper-fire from Sunderland rather than a goalmouth siege was required.
And as the game entered the last 10 minutes, with Sunderland failing to grasp the initiative, Boro stepped their game up another gear.
In a little purple patch they produced more attacking purpose then Sunderland were able to muster in the entire second-half during which Boro keeper Steele did not have to make a meaningful save.
First, Haroun tried a shot from range which thumped into the hoardings behind Westwood’s goal.
McDonald then fired in a shot which Westwood parried and from the next move Haroun tried his luck from the left-wing, Westwood parrying again as he scrambled across goal.
The best chance though for the visitors came in the 82nd minute when George Friend worked himself space in the Sunderland box before lifting a shot just over the bar.
Martin O’Neill brought on Campbell for Johnson and Sunderland created an opportunity from Sessegnon’s right-wing cross but the late charge failed to materialise.
In the four minutes time added on, Sunderland toiled and their fans went through agonies as their team produced nothing but a corner and a Sessegnon header from close range failed to find the target.
It perhaps summed up just how bad Sunderland had been in front of goal all evening as the final whistle went and a storm of boos, jeers and whistles rocked the ground, drowning out for a minute what were to be prolonged celebrations from their Teesside counterparts.
On a night in which Sunderland had been scarily bad in front of goal, Halloween had come early on Wearside.