MARTIN O’NEILL was disgruntled at seeing Adam Johnson dominate the back pages of the tabloids on Saturday morning.
The Sunderland winger had again bemoaned the conclusion of his stint at Manchester City, claiming that young players would be foolish to move to the Etihad where a lack of opportunities would see them stagnate.
O’Neill was not particularly impressed. After all, he was the one who had to face Roberto Mancini later in the day.
But all sins would doubtless have been forgiven had Johnson converted his big talking into a big performance. He didn’t.
A lack of fitness and a stomach bug hardly helped the England international, yet Johnson’s hopes of proving a point to Mancini on his warmly-received return to City came to nought.
For all O’Neill attempted to springboard Johnson into the encounter by persistently alternating the 25-year-old and James McClean between the two flanks, Sunderland’s £10million signing was unable to exert a positive influence.
There were just two occasions when Johnson looked a threat in an impotent attacking display from the visitors.
Two minutes into the second half, he jinked his way past the impressive Aleksandar Kolarov to the by-line before sending in a low cross from the right which was booted out of the six-yard box by Joleon Lescott.
Moments later, Kolarov denied Johnson a one-on-one with a brilliant last-gasp challenge to intercept Stephane Sessegnon’s attempted through-ball.
Other than that, Johnson was a passenger before he was withdrawn with 20-odd minutes to go, heading straight down the tunnel to sooth his nausea.
He was not alone though.
McClean justifiably continues to prompt question marks over whether he can silence the second season syndrome sceptics.
Other than the two Capital One Cup encounters, the 23-year-old is yet to genuinely shine for Sunderland this season.
McClean clearly realises he needs to modify his game after losing the element of surprise which benefited him last season as an unknown.
But it can’t come at the expense of what brought the Republic of Ireland winger his success in the first place.
The directness and determination to get the other side of the full-back and deliver a cross seems to have been diverted by a desire to dart inside or check back on himself.
Defensively, McClean didn’t cover himself in glory on Saturday either.
He was caught dithering in his own area by Carlos Tevez in the first half before the Argentine drilled wide of the far post.
And then he was clearly partly-culpable for City’s decisive second goal after being caught slumbering by Kolarov’s burst forward, beginning his tracking back far too late to prevent the Russian crossing for Sergio Aguero, who had got ahead of the shaky Carlos Cuellar.
O’Neill has consistently reiterated his faith in McClean and the fact that the former Derry City man avoided being withdrawn was telling in its significance.
But McClean is, perhaps inevitably, enduring the first slump of his Sunderland career and will need to be carefully stewarded over the next month or two to ensure he emerges the other side.
It would be unfair, though, to label the blame on Sunderland’s first defeat of the campaign on their two wingers. Barely anyone in red and white did themselves justice.
Fair enough, Sunderland were away at the champions, who defended solidly despite the absence of imperious skipper Vincent Kompany.
City hunted in packs to pressurise Sunderland when they had possession and were quick to use their muscle to regain the ball, particularly when it arrived at the feet of Sessegnon.
But Sunderland didn’t help themselves.
It was the only in the last 30 minutes, when City had the luxury of a two-goal margin, that Mancini’s side were genuinely able to revel and cut through the visitors almost at will.
In that spell, the winning margin could easily have been by five or six.
But for the first hour, City didn’t need to be particularly incisive – primarily profiting from Sunderland’s succession of cheap giveaways than worrying O’Neill’s side through any jaw-dropping attacking.
Although the bright Seb Larsson was at the heart of an improved Sunderland spell in the opening 15 minutes of the second half, the Black Cats were far too flat going forward.
Again in central midfield, Sunderland lacked control without Lee Cattermole and that is surely an area which O’Neill will consider prior to the Wear-Tyne derby.
But, as a team, Sunderland struggled to find space, couldn’t muster a tempo to their passing and were left going sideways rather than forward as City got men behind the ball and looked to hit the Black Cats on the break.
Contrast that with City who, for the first time this season, showed their true selves in the finale.
The pass and move from Mancini’s men was slick, and the catalogue of overlapping runners consistently picked out by the mercurial David Silva ensured a rampant 30-minute spell which would have culminated in a pasting, but for the efforts of Simon Mignolet.
Sunderland couldn’t stoke themselves out of their lethargy and it added up to a relatively tame platform for McClean and Johnson to perform on.
Yes, they were poor when involved, yet their opportunities were too rare and they understandably felt they either had to go looking for the ball or produce a miracle moment to get Sunderland back in the game.
Opportunities won’t be much easier to come by for Sunderland’s wingmen in the derby.
In the inevitable helter-skelter encounter, the ball will play ping-pong in the middle of the park, rather than arriving at the feet of Johnson or McClean with time to run at Newcastle’s full-backs.
But they must begin to fulfil more of the promise offered from the flanks that emerged when Johnson opted to end his City misery in the summer.