The good times just keep on coming for Sunderland under Martin O’Neill, writes Graeme Anderson.
And although the last-minute win against Manchester City on New Year’s Day will take some beating as far as golden memories are concerned for supporters, the new Sunderland manager was right to place last night’s impressive performance at Wigan above the humbling of the Premier League leaders two days earlier.
The victory over a top-four side – Sunderland’s first since their famous win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge 14 months ago – made national headlines and boosted the feel-good factor.
But the win over Wigan had the beating of the City result for the stunning application shown on a mercilessly inhospitable night and for the fact that, for the first time under the new manager, Sunderland did not have to wait until the last minute to have victory confirmed.
But most of all, though, for the fact that it was accomplished with the aching limbs of his increasingly depleted squad stretched to the limit.
Sunderland had beaten City with a weakened side, but, having lost Wes Brown in the game against the Premier League pacesetters, they were also without Seb Larsson last night, who had broken down with a hamstring problem, while Jack Colback was limping long before full-time.
O’Neill had recognised immediately after the City victory that the away trip to relegation rivals Wigan would present a tremendous test – especially given the fact his team had 24 hours fewer to recover from their game than their opponents.
The manager was forced into two changes – Matt Kilgallon given the chance to start at centre-half in place of the injured Brown while Kieran Richardson, who had semi-recovered from a viral infection, replaced Larsson.
And O’Neill did his best to set up his team so they were difficult to beat.
“He was very clever,” said Wigan boss Roberto Martinez.
“Sunderland were very tight defensively – they were looking to stay close to each other and save energy because they had played just 48 hours earlier. They were clever in that way and in putting 11 players behind the ball, which set us the challenge of breaking them down.”
Wigan set about their task with gusto – dangerman Dave Jones forcing a corner in the first minute, while Albert Crusat put a cross in from the left in the second which striker Hugo Rodallega lifted over the bar from the six-yard box under pressure from Kilgallon.
In the first dozen minutes, Sunderland struggled to muster any meaningful attack while Wigan continued to play with purpose – Rodallega saw a shot on goal deflected and when Jones hoisted in the resulting corner, Steve Gohouri fired goalwards and Craig Gardner needed to be perfectly placed to pull off a goal-line clearance.
Sunderland, though, looked organised and, having resisted Wigan’s early pressure, increasingly got a foothold in the game.
In the 13th minute, willing running from skipper Lee Cattermole forced Wigan into an error from which Stephane Sessegnon’s shot on target was blocked by defender Antolin Alcarez.
Richardson put a dangerous free-kick into the box in the 21st minute which was just beyond Nicklas Bendtner’s reach and then Sessegnon released the Dane with a great diagonal ball in the 23rd minute but, typically, the striker was too far out on the right wing to do any damage.
Sunderland’s best chance of the first half-hour didn’t come until the 30th minute itself when Colback chased a lost cause, punted the ball upfield and Richardson and James McClean exchanged a one-two before the left-winger’s centre got across the six-yard box just a fraction of a second before Bendtner did.
But just when it was looking as though Sunderland might push for the upper hand, they had an incredible let-off in the 32nd minute when Wigan hit the woodwork twice in the space of 10 seconds.
Jones endured the first miss, cutting in neatly on the left of goal before driving in a low shot which bounced back into play off the far post.
Then the loose ball was worked to Ben Watson in front of goal, only for him to steer a shot against the other post and out again, with keeper Simon Mignolet beaten.
Long before the eye-catching double miss, the rain had started to come down, blown into the player’s faces by the high winds which swirled around the ground, but, after the half-hour, conditions became torrential and the winds worsened.
With the players battling against the weather, as well as each other, chances were few and far between, but Mignolet had to be at his sharpest on the stroke of half-time to block out a fierce Jones shot at his near post before being up instantly on his feet again to beat out the loose ball under pressure.
At that stage, you imagined all that was on the players’ minds was getting into the break as quickly as possible.
But five minutes were added on for injuries to Cattermole and Crusat and, in the third minute, Gardner scored with a free-kick from 30 yards which dropped jaws all around the ground.
He got his chance on goal from a soft decision, referee Mike Dean giving Sunderland an easy free-kick when Bendtner tumbled under very little pressure 30 yards from the Wigan goal.
If the decision was soft though, Gardner’s effort on goal was anything but.
He absolutely leathered a rising shot which initially looked to be going just wide of Al Habsi’s right-hand post but curled into the top corner, leaving the keeper absolutely no chance.
It was a stunning goal and a stunning moment and it changed the dynamics of the game as Sunderland recharged their batteries in the break and realised they had given themselves a great chance of getting something from the game.
The visitors could have been forgiven for going into their shell in the opening stages of the second half as they looked to protect their lead, but they were soon pushing positively, breaking well, and, in the 55th minute, they doubled their lead with impressively live-wire young winger McClean getting a deserved first goal in Sunderland colours.
Bendtner and Richardson combined to win possession near Wigan’s right-hand corner flag and David Vaughan lofted it into the danger area for McClean, who rose on the six-yard box to head the ball just under the crossbar.
Al Habsi produced a brilliant close-range reaction save to claw the ball out as he fell to the turf, but, before he could get to his feet, McClean was there to head the loose ball home from just a couple of yards out.
It was a fantastic goal for the youngster, right in front of the big Sunderland following behind the Wigan goal, and it gave O’Neill’s men a two-goal cushion.
But, just as at QPR before Christmas, it threatened not to be enough when fortune finally smiled on the home team and they pulled a goal back just after the hour.
Sunderland, for once, did not make best use of possession and Rodallega got his first goal in six months when his shot from just outside the box took a deflection off Kilgallon and spiralled past Mignolet’s right glove.
Sunderland might have wobbled, but Wigan – who had played the last 20 minutes of their Saturday game against Stoke with only 10 men – lacked the power or energy to press home their advantage.
They went close in the 66th minute when Sunderland had to defend desperately a left-wing corner at their near post which threatened to sneak in low down.
But other than that they were largely untroubled and, in the 71st minute, they regained their two-goal lead when John O’Shea’s ball upfield to the right saw Bendtner spin away from his marker and drill in a low cross which Sessegnon stretched to toe-poke a left-foot shot beyond Al Habsi in the six-yard box.
A tense finale might have been set up two minutes later had Watson been able to steer a snapshot on target, but instead he rippled the outside of the netting.
McClean might have made it a double with a cheeky lob which almost beat Al Habsi in the 75th minute.
But the game was put beyond Wigan five minutes later when McClean and Sessegnon pressurised the home defence in the 18-yard-box and a deflection spun out to Vaughan, right in front of goal, who hit an absolute screamer – his first-time, left-shot spinning high into the roof of Al Habsi’s net in the right-hand corner.
It’s debatable whether any keeper in the world could have saved Sunderland’s first or last goals and, in those last few minutes, Wigan were a broken force as the away fans, who had travelled in impressively large numbers revelled in their side’s inevitable victory.
They were further rewarded at the final whistle by O’Neill approaching them on the pitch to offer a fist salute at another memorable victory under his stewardship.
It is now 13 points from six games since his arrival – it would have been 15 but for referee Howard Webb – and, somewhat incredibly, Sunderland can look down on the division from the top half of the table today.
The sterling efforts of the players who have given everything for him have left the treatment room full to overflowing and this Sunday’s game will offer a final challenge before the congested fixture list begins to ease.
Peterborough in the FA Cup – the second-highest scoring side in the Championship – present exactly the same sort of banana-skin challenge as Brighton did in the Carling Cup earlier in the season.
But with O’Neill inspiring such amazing performances and results, who is to say that Sunderland are not now at the start of their first cup run in years?
Anything, it seems, is possible right now.