EVERTON in March marked the moment Sunderland began to fall away under Martin O’Neill – his spent side failing to win any of their remaining eight matches after being ruthlessly disassembled in the FA Cup quarter-final replay.
But maybe, just maybe, Everton on Saturday signalled the beginning of the end of what has been a nightmare run for O’Neill after his fairy-tale start to the Sunderland job almost a year ago.
The feel-good factor is yet to return to the club following that harrowing night at the Stadium of Light in which Everton, by manager David Moyes’s own admission, played their best football of their season.
The comprehensive defeat precipitated a slump which reached across the close season and has cast a shadow across the current campaign – Sunderland winning only one of their last 18 league games. Saturday was their third successive defeat; their fourth in six games.
But at bogey ground Goodison Park there were the first genuine signs of the season that Sunderland, reinforced by the arrivals of Steven Fletcher, Adam Johnson, Carlos Cuellar and Danny Rose this summer, are finally beginning to find form again.
Despite losing captain Lee Cattermole to a hamstring strain before kick-off, Sunderland made a forceful, confident start to the game against Champions League-placed opposition and could have been two goals up in the opening 10 minutes.
Fletcher fed Sessegnon on the left of goal in the third minute, putting the striker in a one-on-one with keeper Tim Howard, and Sessegnon returned the compliment five minutes later.
But from similar positions neither could open the scoring – Sessegnon shot straight at Howard at the near post; Fletcher lifted his shot across the keeper but it trickled inches wide at the far post.
The were two great opportunities, but they were not isolated moments of excellence from the Wearsiders.
When Jack Colback zeroed in on goal from right, only to disappoint with a tame effort straight at the keeper in the 34th minute, Sunderland fans had seen more shots on target in half-an-hour’s play than they’d seen in the preceding three games.
For once, Simon Mignolet did not have to produce a man-of-the-match performance – Carlos Cuellar and John O’Shea offered him excellent protection while right-back Craig Gardner stuck manfully at the job of containing the marauding Leighton Baines and Rose, at left-back, covered well and got forward regularly.
The key to Sunderland’s success, though, was their flair players clicking into gear.
James McClean looked more confident, Johnson saw more of the ball and did more with it than he had done up to this point.
But it was Sessegnon who was the real plus – looking for the first time like the man who was Player of the Season in the last campaign.
He looked sharp and eager and the touch, movement and close control were all on display again for what seemed like the first time in an age.
All the performance lacked was a goal and that duly arrived seconds before half-time when Everton half-cleared a corner and the smart-thinking Gardner lofted a ball over the defence where Johnson – dropped from the England squad last week – nipped past the nation’s newest call-up, the dozing Leon Osman, to smash a left-footed shot through Howard from six yards out.
It was a fine way for the £10million winger to mark his 150th Premier League appearance and make the first entry in his case for a recall from Roy Hodgson.
More importantly, it was Sunderland’s first goal in almost nine hours of football and the first time any Sunderland player other than Fletcher had got on the scoresheet in the Premier League this season.
That last stat is perhaps the most damning of all – it is, after all, mid-November.
Everton could have no complaints about going in behind at the break, not that they were slouches in that opening half.
Lively Belgian Kevin Mirallas was a constant threat until injury forced him off just after the half-hour.
Striker Nikica Jelalvic was almost through on goal in the very first minute, Steven Pienaar brought a smart stop from Mignolet at his near post after edging beyond Rose just after the half hour and Seamus Coleman almost won a penalty from international team-mate James McClean.
Marouane Fellaini scuffed a shot wide from a good position, while Phil Neville tried his luck from range with a powerful shot which Mignolet punched away two-handed, diving to his right.
“I didn’t actually think we were playing that bad in the first half,” said a bemused Moyes. “I couldn’t really think of anything to change. I was just hoping we would be better in the second half.”
Everton WERE better in the second half, as Sunderland knew they would be, but they failed to make the most of their initial early pressure – John Heitinga going closest with a great glancing header from a left-wing cross which Johnson cleared off the line on the far post.
By the time the hour-mark arrived, Sunderland fans had not only seen their best hour of Premier League football so far this season, they’d also seen their team looking as comfortable as have done in recent years on a ground that has so often and so crushingly been a graveyard for their hopes.
Yes, Everton were playing some fine football and looked threatening, but Seb Larsson and Jack Colback were working hard to throw a protective shield across a disciplined back four and the Black Cats always looked potentially damaging on the counter-attack.
The only setback they suffered was Gardner picking up a fifth yellow card for a foul trying to recover possession – the versatile Brummie earning himself a one-match ban – and as the game turned towards home both sides made changes with Everton trying to find a way back into the game.
Sunderland exchanged Fletcher – on the receiving end of some rough treatment – for returning Blue Louis Saha, who received a warm reception. Fading Everton skipper Neville was replaced by striker Apostolos Vellios and a few minutes later the home team found the equaliser.
Everton’s 77th-minute leveller was less due to tactical changes than the opportunism of Fellaini, who received the ball on the edge of the Sunderland area and, with the visiting defence on its heels just for one instant, fired a low shot from 17 yards through O’Shea’s legs and into the bottom right corner of Mignolet’s goal.
It was a perfect piece of pick-pocketry, but there was even more vision displayed by the big Belgian in the creation of his side’s next goal just two minutes later when, with his back to goal, he curled the ball into the danger-zone with the outside of his right boot – through O’Shea’s legs – and Jelavic, on the left of goal, lifted a cushioned shot over the Sunderland keeper with admirable aplomb.
Sunderland did not give up and might have forced an equaliser in the 81st minute from a Larsson free-kick into the area, but Cuellar’s goal-bound close-range pile-driver smashed straight into Gardner a couple of yards ahead of him.
It all left O’Neill cutting a deeply frustrated figure on the sidelines.
And his mood, already grim, turned apopleptic when Rose, pushing hard in a 93rd-minute sprint up the wing was blocked by Fellaini, but, instead of Sunderland being awarded a free-kick with the chance to launch the ball into the danger zone, found referee Lee Mason booking the defender for simulation.
It was a deeply underwhelming end to what had been a morale-raising affair for so much of the game for Sunderland.
But it will at least give re-assurance to O’Neill and his players, in the cold light of day, that they seem to be on the right track.
If they keep up this standard of play, and build on it in the weeks ahead, their season will undoubtedly start heading in the right direction.