SUNDERLAND are now on their longest winless run of the season – longer than the one which cost Steve Bruce his job back in December.
But while Martin O’Neill will be crestfallen that the momentum which marked his arrival has been lost since his side reached the 40-point safety target, he might reflect that every cloud has a silver lining.
Minds have already turned – his own included – to the work to be done in the close season.
And yesterday’s Craven Cottage defeat only piled on more evidence, as if it were needed, that goalscorers must be brought into the Stadium of Light this summer – Sunderland’s current squad would have achieved so much more this season if there had been a truly natural finisher in the side.
Nicklas Bendtner, Stephane Sessegnon and Fraizer Campbell all failed when presented with good goalscoring opportunities and, on this occasion in particular, it said much that their solitary goal came from a full-back producing a terrific strike from outside the 18-yard box.
When Campbell failed to squeeze home another chance in the dying seconds, you wondered whether Sunderland’s frontmen would have scored at Craven Cottage had they been playing still.
And when it comes to analysing the Black Cats’ Premier League goals record this season – Bendtner (8), Sessegnon (7) Fraizer Campbell (1), Ji Dong-won (1) and Connor Wickham (1) – the return from the strikeforce defines Sunderland’s central problem.
Five forwards with an average of 3.5 goals each between them.
Sunderland could have hoped for better opponents yesterday against which to improve that disappointing record.
Modest Fulham have proved an obstacle for Sunderland’s hopes for far longer than O’Neill has been in charge, of course – the Black Cats having failed to score in the last five games against the Cottagers.
And with Fulham being one of the hottest teams in the Premier League at the moment – third in the recent form league; and Sunderland one of the coldest, six games without a win and drawing five of those six matches – it never looked good for those with Wearside hopes at heart.
The game went the way of the form books.
It was characterised by slow starts in both halves – both ended by attacks five minutes in, from which Damien Duff was disappointed to see right-wing crosses not finished by Russian forward Pavel Pogrebnyak.
Sunderland flattered to deceive in those early stages – Craig Gardner ambitiously whistling a free-kick wide from 35 yards out, while Fulham were more incisive, Simon Mignolet having to make a good save from Pogrebnyak.
And Fulham showcased that precision when they took a 12th-minute lead following Lee Cattermole’s crass barging of Mahamadou Diarra which left referee Martin Atkinson absolutely no alternative but to award a free-kick 20 yards out, just to the right of goal.
Man-of-the-moment Clint Dempsey – Fulham’s top scorer and with a record of 15 goals in his last 15 games at Craven Cottage – relished the opportunity gifted to him and drove a right-foot shot around the wall and into the top left-hand corner of Mignolet’s goal.
The keeper did well to get his fingertips to the ball and will feel that, having done so, he should have pushed it around the post.
But it was still a great shot from Dempsey and Sunderland had only themselves to blame for conceding the free-kick in the first place.
Mignolet, returning in goal after Craig Gordon’s cameo appearance, was one of three changes Martin O’Neill had made from the side which drew 2-2 with Bolton previously – Gardner returned from a one-game suspension to play on the right wing, while Ji was given an opportunity up front in place of Bendtner.
The reshuffle failed to spark a resurgence in form, although Cattermole tried hard to redeem himself after his clumsiness for the free-kick, producing defence-splitting passes for Sessegnon and then Gardner.
And while Gardner did well to even reach the ball, Sessegnon squandered a great chance to level on the quarter-hour when he twisted this way and that before his shot was blocked by Mark Schwarzer, when a quickly-taken shot would have had far more chance of success.
Fulham remained more incisive – a lovely interchange of passes from Duff and Danny Murphy up the right wing needing a goal-stopping challenge by Michael Turner eight yards out on the former Newcastle man.
Sunderland were frustrated, but, just as the game looked to be settling into an attritional midfield battle, the Black Cats produced a goal from nothing in the 34th minute.
Bardsley started and finished the move, passing upfield to Jack Colback, who found Ji, just outside the box on the left of goal. The South Korean tapped the ball back to the full-back, who had continued his run forward.
Bardsley absolutely leathered a shot from 25 yards which left Schwarzer with no chance, the shot flashing past the Aussie’s dive to his left.
It was a great way for the Sunderland man to celebrate his 150th Premier League appearance for the club, just as Dempsey’s goal had been his 50th for Fulham.
But Sunderland had barely stopped celebrating when their opponents equalised – Cattermole losing Mousa Dembele from kick-off, the Belgian driving forward and forcing a shot goalwards which bounced over Turner’s attempted block and looped over the luckless Mignolet.
The pitch had been slippy throughout and Sessegnon had gone off the pitch to change his boots for better footing when Fulham regained the lead.
“I think him going off distracted us,” claimed O’Neill, who was stunned by the goal but still hopeful his side might get back into it.
Sunderland had to be happy, though, to make it to the break just a goal behind – Duff cut inside Bardsley in the 39th minute but drove his shot into the side netting; Dempsey almost found his way through but was thwarted by a last-ditch Matt Kilgallon challenge which had home fans screaming for a penalty.
Sunderland managed another Gardner free-kick just before the break, but, from a prime position 20 yards out, directly in front of goal, he dragged a low shot just wide of Schwarzer’s right-hand post.
If the travelling fans hoped it would prove to be a game of two halves and Sunderland would be much stronger after the break, they were to be disappointed.
Fulham produced that early chance on the resumption – Pogrebnyak’s shot being blocked out by O’Shea, before a Dempsey shot was headed off the line by Colback, then an attempt from Stephen Kelly was plucked out of the air by Mignolet in the 53rd minute.
Sunderland were positive in possession but lacked penetration and, just before the hour, O’Neill took off Ji, who had been neat enough but unable to create a clear-cut chance in what was his first start since the new manager’s arrival.
Sunderland finally tested Schwarzer in the 63rd minute, through James McClean’s nimble twist and shot, but the Fulham keeper simply bobbed along his line to his right to make the save look easy.
Sunderland’s fans were in full voice, trying to lift their team, but Turner still needed to produce a crucial header after a slick Fulham move in the 65th minute to snuff out danger.
Fraizer Campbell came on for Matt Kilgallon in the 70th minute as Sunderland went ever more attacking – three strikers now on the pitch.
But it required a great save from Mignolet to keep Sunderland in it after good work from Dempsey and Duff, the keeper making an important block to deny Dembele.
Gardner had dropped to right-back on Campbell’s arrival and, from that position, he delivered three great long balls upfield.
His first, to Sessegnon, saw the African switch the ball inside from the right-wing for Bendtner.
It gave the Dane a free sight of goal, but he curled his shot disappointingly wide from 18 yards.
Bendtner might have made amends, heading down another good long ball from Gardner to Campbell in the 76th minute, but the sub drove squeezed his shot wide when it looked easier to hit the target from eight yards out.
These were chances Sunderland could not afford to squander and ultimately cost them the chance of sharing the spoils.
Campbell had a chance inside the six-yard box in the very last few seconds, but a draw at that stage would have flattered the Wearsiders.
In front of goal, Sunderland had faltered once again.
Martin O’Neill was quick to acknowledge that in his Press conferences afterwards and you can be sure he’ll be making the same point to owner Ellis Short as Sunderland make their close-season plans.