THREE MONTHS ago, a brace from Connor Wickham ensured Sunderland’s Under-21s secure a comfortable victory over Aston Villa at a windswept Academy of Light.
The conditions were mirrored yesterday afternoon – albeit the barometer registered a couple of degrees lower – but the outcome was very, very different.
Kevin Ball’s options have changed significantly since November.
Wickham, Ji Dong-won, Adam Reed and Blair Adams have all left Wearside since then - the first three on temporary moves – while the key figure of John Egan faces a rocky road back from a double leg break.
Ryan Noble and Craig Lynch were the only players available to Ball yesterday with Football League experience, with five academy scholars making up the numbers in the 15-man squad.
But inexperience was no excuse for the way Sunderland collapsed after Villa’s 66th minute opener, with the visitors netting a further three times in the 12 minutes that followed, including a hat-trick for Republic of Ireland Under-19 international Michael Drennan.
Up until then, neither side had particularly threatened.
Sunderland’s front two of Mikael Mandron (right) and Noble were thwarted by impressive Villa centre-half Janoi Donacien, although the latter bafflingly decided to shoot from the edge of the area midway through the first half when he could and should have sent Adam Mitchell clean through on goal.
Craig Lynch stung the palms of Benjamin Siegrist when he burst forward from the centre-circle and let fly with a rising right-foot shot from the edge of the area which the Villa keeper parried away high to his right.
And the ex-Hartlepool loanee threatened again five minutes before the interval when he cut inside from the left and curled a right-footed shot towards the far post which was turned behind by Siegrist.
But Villa weren’t much better going forwards until they broke the deadlock, with an early Drennan free-kick over the top their only meaningful first half effort.
The first goal in Drennan’s treble sparked an avalanche though and the manner in which Sunderland raised the white flags was dreadfully tame.
Moments before Villa’s opener, Sunderland were given a warning when Daniel Johnson played in Jack Grealish down the left-hand channel, leaving the left winger with just Ben Wilson to beat.
But the Sunderland stopper spread himself well to block Grealish’s low shot, before the rebound was deflected behind.
The dreadlocked Johnson did prove the creator for Villa three minutes later though when he played Drennan clean through on goal and the striker kept his cool to slot low into the bottom corner.
Noble saw a shot blocked by Derrick Williams at the other end in the exchanges that followed, but it was only a brief hiatus from the one-way traffic.
Villa doubled their advantage in the 70th minute when Drennan played a beautifully-weighted ball inside Tom McNamee which presented the pacy Graham Burke with a one-on-one.
Burke rounded Wilson, steadied himself with a touch and slotted clinically into the net.
The lead extended to three five minutes later when the inventive Samir Carruthers’ ball over the top was controlled by Drenann with his back to goal and he struck a shot on the turn into the bottom left-hand corner for his second.
Drennan then sealed his hat-trick when he curled a left-footed free-kick from inside the D around the wall, with Wilson left motionless.
Substitute Jordan Graham could have added a fifth for Villa with three minutes to go, but his effort from a narrow angle on the left-hand touchline was beaten away by Wilson.
SUNDERLAND: Wilson, Marrs, Ferguson, Laidler, Harrison, McNamee, Mitchell, Gorrin (Joyce 64), Noble, Mandron, Lynch. Subs not used: Beadling, Dixon, Honeyman
ASTON VILLA: Siegrist, Barton, Webb (Lewis 46), Stieber, Donacien, Williams, Carruthers (Crooks 84), Johnson, Drennan, Burke (Graham 71), Grealish. Sub not used: Barrett