THE PURPOSE of Martin O’Neill’s decision to send a raft of rookies to the Football League on loan has been to give them a taste of “real” football.
But if all reserve games were as competitive and physical as yesterday’s thrilling 3-3 draw with Liverpool, the need to educate players beyond the usual synthetic second string games wouldn’t be so pressing.
It wasn’t quite a throwback to a bygone age when the reserve team was awash with first-teamers who hadn’t played the previous Saturday.
But the tackling, often bordering on the violent, will to win and goal threat from either side was hugely refreshing and certainly proved an eye-opener to the youthful Sunderland side on show.
Keith Bertschin’s men showed real hunger in the opening 45 minutes after bouncing back from Liverpool’s opener and their determination, coupled with a willingness to fight fire with fire, unsettled the visitors.
John Egan dominated at the back, Adam Reed disrupted the tempo of Liverpool’s midfield as well as distributing the ball efficiently, while Oumare Tounkara was always a threat with his pace in behind.
The second half was a different story though as Liverpool’s eye-catching front four tormented the Black Cats’ defence throughout as the petulant Reds fought back from a 3-1 half-time deficit.
Former Huddersfield loanee Nathan Eccleston and 18-year-old winger Jesus Fernandez Saez, known as Suso, were a constant thorn in Sunderland’s side and could easily have inflicted a first defeat on the Black Cats since the 5-1 loss in November’s reverse fixture.
Sunderland should have gone ahead in the 19th minute when Reed lifted the ball over the static Liverpool defence for Tounkara to race onto. He left Stephen Sama in his tracks and tried to lift it over onrushing Liverpool keeper Tyrell Belford, only for the stopper to block with his head.
It was the visitors who broke the deadlock six minutes later when the hugely impressive Suso had drifted inside from his right-wing berth and raced down the left-hand channel towards Sunderland’s area.
Suso let fly with a drilled left-footed towards the far corner which came back off the far post, but fell straight into the path of John Flanaghan who tucked the ball into the empty net.
But Sunderland were level within two minutes from the penalty spot after Craig Lynch was felled by a stud-up challenge from Jack Robinson following a slick Sunderland move involving Tounkara and James Armstrong.
Reed stepped up and sent Belford the wrong way from the penalty spot, tucking the ball coolly into the right-hand corner.
Liverpool almost instantly regained the lead when Krisztian Adorjan showed some quick feet to lose the attentions of Egan and Michael Liddle before firing a shot across goal which was just out of the reach of Raheem Sterling.
But it was Sunderland who got their noses in front on the half-hour mark when Lynch let fly with a sumptuous effort from 25 yards which curled into the top corner beyond the helpless Belford.
Bertschin’s side extended their lead 10 minutes before the interval when Roarie Deacon curled an inswinging free-kick from the left which took the faintest of touches, if any, off the head of Bret Elliott and rolled into the net.
Liverpool pulled a goal back from a set piece of their own in the 50th minute when Black Cats stopper Lewis King was completely bamboozled by the flight of Adorjan’s left wing corner, leaving Connor Coady to head it home from point-blank range.
It was to become a recurring theme for King, who showed stunning reflexes in his shot-stopping yet never looked confident when it came to taking crosses in the gusty conditions.
Sunderland had King to thank in the 62nd minute though when Eccleston outpaced Liddle down the right-hand channel and fed Adorjan with a pinpoint through-ball down the middle of the Wearsiders’ defence.
Adorjan had only King to beat, but the stopper spread himself superbly and blocked the Hungarian striker’s effort.
King was again on his toes eight minutes later when he beat away Eccleston’s free-kick from the left of goal, on the edge of the area, with a double-handed parry.
But two minutes later, Sunderland were level when Adorjan played a one-two to Suso from a left wing corner and curled in an inswinging cross which looped straight over King.
Liverpool sensed a winner and went agonisingly close in the dying stages.
With five minutes to go, Eccleston met Robinson’s low left wing cross at the near post, but just diverted it the wrong side of the woodwork.
Moments later, Suso left the Sunderland defence for dead with stunning quick-feet down the right-hand side of the area, but then let fly with a shot that lacked power and was gathered low by King.
The Spaniard saved his best effort for stoppage time when he collected possession on the right flank, drifted inside past the tired challenges of the Sunderland midfield and unleashed a left-footed rocket from 25 yards which beat King, but cannoned back off the crossbar.
But it would have been harsh on a less experienced and less expensively-assembled Sunderland side to finish on the losing side. The winner was deservedly the spectacle.
SUNDERLAND: King, Marrs, Watson, Reed, Egan, Liddle, Deacon, Armstrong, Tounkara, Lynch (Mitchell 48), Elliott (Laidler 74). Subs not used: Oliver, B Wilson, Gorrin.
LIVERPOOL: Belford, Flanaghan, Robinson, Sama, Wisdom, Coady, Suso, Roberts, Eccleston, Adorjan, Sterling. Subs not used: Mendy, Ward, McGiveron, Ridden, Ngoo.