Sunderland 1 Manchester City 0: Chris Young’s verdict

Sunderland's  Ji Dong-Won, left, celebrates his goal with Craig Gardner
Sunderland's Ji Dong-Won, left, celebrates his goal with Craig Gardner
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UNWANTED, publicly touted to any willing suitors and stagnating in the reserves during the peak years of his career.

No one could begrudge Matt Kilgallon if he regretted swapping life as one of the highest-rated defenders in the Championship for existing as the forgotten man at the furthest-flung fringes of Sunderland’s squad.

Since a meagre seven appearances in the first four months of his Black Cats career after arriving in the January, 2010, transfer window, the 27-year-old had been cast aside by Steve Bruce.

The ex-Sunderland boss had made his mind up and was eager to lessen the demands on the club’s wage bill by offloading Kilgallon.

There was a significant hurdle, though. Loan spells at Middlesbrough and Doncaster had failed to ignite and any would-be admirers were reluctant to take a chance on the former Sheffield United defender.

Even a series of solid performances this season for the second string had failed to alter Bruce’s mindset and he was happy to let Kilgallon go on trial to any willing Championship club in the hope of providing some sort of catalyst to a Wearside exit.

It may ultimately be a brief cameo, but if any single player embodies the transformation Martin O’Neill has brought to the prospects and mood surrounding Sunderland, then Kilgallon holds that honour.

Until yesterday’s dramatic events, Kilgallon had simply been a lucky charm, on the bench for each of O’Neill’s five games, apart from the trip to White Hart Lane – the one encounter Sunderland have lost under their new steward.

Still, despite the procession of defenders to the treatment room or chemist’s counter, there was a sense Kilgallon would remain as an unused substitute until an apocalyptic combination of circumstances contrived to rob O’Neill of other options.

A new manager brings a fresh perspective though and at 3.26pm yesterday, when Wes Brown signalled to the bench that he couldn’t continue, Kilgallon finally got the opportunity for Sunderland redemption as the only remaining senior defender available to O’Neill.

It took Kilgallon several moments to catch his breath and familiarise himself with the Premier League, particularly an attack as potent as Manchester City’s, and Edin Dzeko suddenly found himself with some room in which to manoeuvre.

Time brought assurance for Kilgallon though and he rose to the challenge of proving more than 200 career appearances are no fluke.

A crucial header to intercept Adam Johnson’s inviting cross on the stroke of half-time, when Dzeko was licking his lips, provided a suitable confidence booster and he formed a resolute buffer with John O’Shea to stifle City’s big guns after the break.

The misplaced fears surrounding Kilgallon also proved applicable to Jack Colback and Craig Gardner though as Sunderland rose to the challenge of dispelling pre-match concerns of City racking up a cricket score against a makeshift back four.

Led by the immense O’Shea, now starting to show his pedigree after an injury-plagued start to his Sunderland career, the Black Cats defence limited City to half chances with the game’s three best opportunities all arriving at the other end of the field.

And it was Colback and Gardner who stood tall in keeping some of the Premier League’s most elusive widemen under wraps.

Neither were complete strangers to their emergency full-back positions – Colback playing at left-back on a couple of occasions for Sunderland and during his loan spell with Ipswich, while Gardner was versatile enough to fill in at right-back after coming through the ranks under O’Neill at Aston Villa.

Johnson had his moments in escaping the attentions of Colback, but the Tynesider stuck to the sensible ploy of shunting the Easington-born winger infield, where his looping inswinging crosses failed to trigger any alarm bells.

Gardner was similarly solid and in his first start since October, provided two truly pivotal interceptions in ensuring City registered a blank for the second successive game after scoring 53 in the previous 17.

The goal-line clearance to deny Samir Nasri in the first half showed an appreciation of the danger, but the block on Pablo Zabaleta, when Seb Larsson had misjudged a clearing header, displayed pure guts and a determination to keep City out.

On the rare moments when City did get a shot on target, Simon Mignolet belied his lack of training with a series of agile stops – even if he was fortuitous during the first half for flapping at a couple of crosses and when the visitors twice hit the woodwork.

But Mignolet’s rushed return, weeks ahead of schedule, was symptomatic of the lengths Sunderland reached in even putting a defensive unit on the pitch, let alone one capable of harnessing opponents who have averaged three goals per game.

Helped by the tireless efforts of sick-bed absentee Seb Larsson, immense skipper Lee Cattermole and eventual match winner Ji Dong-won, Sunderland ensured their first victory over one of the Premier League’s heavyweights since success at Stamford Bridge just over a year ago.

Those exertions will inevitably take their toll at Wigan tomorrow night and O’Neill’s defence is likely to be similarly unfamiliar. But Sunderland’s band of makeweight full-backs, in from the cold centre-halves and masked goalkeepers found depths of character noticeably absent when the injury crisis hit in a sorry 2011.