THE QUEST to fill Sunderland’s problem position of left-back with a permanent specialist lasted for the best part of a decade.
Perhaps it’s one minor reason why Sunderland have consistently struggled for points over recent years. The full-back slots are so crucial to the modern game that fudged solutions just don’t cut it.
Stop-gap measures Danny Rose and Marcos Alonso have been two of the most successful players in a Sunderland shirt over the last couple of years, but both frustratingly departed with no lasting legacy.
Even after finally solving the dilemma with the bargain £1.5million capture of Patrick van Aanholt during the summer, left-back has caused Gus Poyet a major headache while the Dutchman has been sidelined for the last two-and-a-half months.
Deputies Billy Jones and Anthony Reveillere simply haven’t been able to offer the same attacking qualities there, as they do at right-back.
It’s not so telling on the road, but at home in the more “winnable” games, the lack of a natural left-back takes its toll.
Van Aanholt showed just what Sunderland have been missing yesterday, and not just from a superb first goal in Black Cats colours, as he fired the ball into the far corner of the Leeds United when the angle looked implausible.
While there will continue to be the odd defensive lapse from van Aanholt as he continues his footballing education, he offers both the searing pace and width that makes a critical difference to Sunderland’s approach play when there is just one man up front and three in the middle of the park.
The 24-year-old was by some distance Sunderland’s stand-out player yesterday, with Leeds unable to contain his forwards forays during a dominant first half from the hosts.
All of a sudden, there was a contrasting tempo and a different attacking dimension, to what can often become stodgy midfield possession play from Poyet’s side.
Most encouragingly of all, van Aanholt lasted the full 90 minutes, which was a big ask from Poyet.
The original plan had been for van Aanholt to spend a whole fortnight training alongside his team-mates in full contact sessions, before being plunged back into competitive action.
Due to the nature of his shoulder injury, van Aanholt has been able to keep himself in shape, but the question mark has centred on how he would cope with the hustle and bustle of coming up against other players.
But Poyet has been desperate to have van Aanholt back in the fold, and, with Jones in need of a rest after his own comeback, the head coach opted to take the risk in the hope that the Dutch international would come through unscathed and be up to speed for this Saturday’s Premier League visit of Liverpool.
It was mission accomplished, and his inclusion rubbed off on the rest of the side.
The combination play with Emanuele Giaccherini down the left flank proved too hot to handle for Leeds during the opening 45 minutes, as the visitors gave Sunderland far too much respect.
Giaccherini was knocked off the ball a couple of times too easily when he drifted into central midfield, but his movement and quality in possession gave Leeds real problems.
And with a left-back happy to bomb on, Jordi Gomez had something to aim for too, with that pass inside the opposition right-back, which he plays so well.
Having van Aanholt fit on one flank, and Billy Jones available on the other, is a major boost for Poyet ahead of the Liverpool encounter.
The two have been in the same side together on just two occasions this season, with Sunderland managing a four-point haul from those outings against Swansea and Stoke.
The only drawback from Sunderland’s safe passage to the FA Cup fourth round was that they failed to make the most of van Aanholt’s rampaging runs and endured a needlessly nervy second half.
Sunderland were comfortable and controlled in that opening 45 minutes, with Leeds looking like a rag-tag bunch who were understandably in the thick of the Championship relegation battle.
But despite chances for Giaccherini, Ricky Alvarez, Santiago Vergini and most notably Steven Fletcher, Sunderland had just that one goal advantage at the interval.
Trailing by that slender advantage – and after what will surely have been a half-time rocket from boss Neil Redfearn – Leeds were a different side after the break.
They twice went desperately close in the early stages of the second half, had a penalty shout when Charlie Taylor was felled on the very edge of the box, and created a touch of anxiety in the stands and on the pitch.
With central midfielder Rodolph Austin breaking up Sunderland’s lengthy spells of possession and striker Mirco Antenucci becoming far more involved, the Championship outfit sensed a replay at least, if not a reversal of the 1973 final.
Sunderland didn’t help themselves.
Again, Sebastian Coates often prompted attacks from the visitors with his sloppy possession, while Fletcher spurned more opportunities to put the game to bed, albeit one was kept out by a smart save from Leeds keeper Marco Silvestri.
With the visitors going gung-ho in search of a leveller, there was plenty of space for Sunderland to exploit and seal their safe passage, before Leeds skipper Liam Cooper almost nicked a replay with a stoppage time header against the outside of the post.
However, a repeat of the scoreline from 1973 – whose team were toasted by Sunderland fans and booed by the 5,000 Leeds contingent before kick-off – proved sufficient.
And in the end, the boxes were ticked for Poyet.
(a) Van Aanholt came through the game unscathed and showed no signs of rust.
(b) Sunderland booked their place in the fourth round.
(c) Sunderland ended a three-month wait for a Stadium of Light victory, with only a second home win of the campaign.
As Newcastle showed 24 hours earlier, elimination at such an early stage of the FA Cup can produce a torrent of unwanted criticism.
While managers may treat the competition with disdain, supporters still harbour their childhood fondness for it, particularly at clubs where the fear of relegation is not of code red proportions.
Poyet may have made six changes, but he still fielded a strong side, with van Aanholt the only player named on the team-sheet who was a wild card.
He got his rewards.
It might not have held the magnitude of the last time the two teams met in the FA Cup, but Sunderland’s progress prevents any bitter, angry fall-out which is well underway up the road.
SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Vergini, van Aanholt, Coates, O’Shea, Bridcutt, Rodwell (Larsson 37), Gomez, Alvarez (Wickham 46), Giaccherini (Johnson 74), Fletcher. Subs not used: Stryjek, Buckley, Beadling, Robson. Booked: Bridcutt (71)
LEEDS: Silvestri, Berardi, Cooper, Del Fabro, C Taylor, Austin, Murphy, Sloth, Adryan (Sharp 62), Antenucci, Montenegro (Doukara 85). Subs not used: S Taylor, Killock, Thompson, Phillips, Dawson. Booked: Murphy (35)
Attendance: 30,302. Ref: Mike Dean