HAVING successfully seen off one nemesis in the shape of Tim Cahill, Sunderland now have to worry about the emergence of another in Howard Webb.
Time was when the drill was for Cahill to pop up in every game against Sunderland, ghost away from his marker at a set piece at some stage and nod home inside the box – match-winner or blush-saver against the side he loves to face.
The 32-year-old, though, is a fading force these days, having not scored in 12 months – even though it looked as though he would roll back the years in the early stages of yesterday’s game.
He produced the best attempt of the opening 10 minutes when he rifled a shot goalwards from an acute angle on the right – a brilliant effort just to get it on target, though the narrowness of the angle made it easy for keeper Keiren Westwood to block.
It was an ominous early warning for Sunderland and predictably he got his opening – the moment arriving as early as the 12th minute – when he ghosted away from his marker at a set piece inside the box in trademark fashion.
This time though, he nodded his efforts yard wide and was never to threaten as dangerously again.
It was one of two early let-offs for the Wearsiders in a first half-hour dominated by the visitors, Cahill’s glaring miss, from a corner from the left, being matched by unmarked Louis Saha’s comical failure to connect close range at the far post from a corner less than 60 seconds later.
Sunderland, by that stage, might have been beginning to believe that luck was on their side – that the good fortune which has accompanied Martin O’Neill’s arrival would once again prevail.
But while Cahill failed to live up to his usual jinx billing, Sunderland were to be undone – not for the first time – by the suggestibility, or perhaps gullibility, of easily influenced referee Webb less than an hour later.
It was hard lines on Sunderland who were unchanged from the side which did so well at QPR in midweek and might have been expected to carry momentum into the match, especially with the visitors not helped by limited selection options.
Everton were deprived of midfield enforcer Marouane Fellaini and had to utilise centre-half Slyvain Distin’s return to the side to push Johnny Heitinga forward into midfield.
It was a damage limitation tactic from the visitors.
But rather than being cowed by their limited options, Everton accepted that they would have to work their socks to have a chance, settled into their game plan, and their sheer hard work took Sunderland by surprise in the opening stages.
They never allowed the Wearsiders to settle and just before Cahill and Saha’s opportunities, Bramble’s header at Tim Howard in the 12th minute, from a Seb Larsson free-kick, marked Sunderland’s first effort on target.
Bramble – Sunderland’s best defender since O’Neill’s arrival – looked comfortable in the heart of defence and his withdrawal with a muscle strain in just the 20th minute did not bode well.
Nicklas Bendtner might have produced a goal just before the substitution, capitalising on a great ball from Kieran Richardson without being able to weave his way past the massed ranks of the Everton defence.
But half-a-dozen minutes after replacing Bramble, Jack Colback put the Wearsiders in front with his first senior goal for Sunderland.
The Tynesider has told the Echo several times how desperate he is to score goals from midfield and how he suspected his first might have to come from a deflection, a ricochet or a bounce off his bum – he wasn’t too far wrong.
Wonderful footwork by Bendtner and Stephane Sessegnon in the 25th minute ended with the African rolling the ball out to the unmarked Colback, on the left of goal, and he connected truly, hitting a low shot straight at Tim Howard.
The Everton keeper went down to smother the shot and would have taken it as comfortably as Liverpool’s Pepe Reina would have taken Darren Bent’s pre-beachball shot at the Stadium of Light.
But just as the deflection from the beachball left Reina with no chance, Sylvain Distin’s late attempt to block Colback’s shot also left his keeper with no chance – the ball deflecting off his shin and over the hapless keeper.
Sunderland had withstood an impressive Everton surge to go ahead before the half-hour and, having done so, were looking full value for the win before Webb’s intervention.
Everton midfielder Royston Drenthe tried to pull his team back into it with a shot on the turn from 25 yards in the 32nd minute which Richardson shinned past the post.
And that led to two corners, the first which Sunderland defended very shakily, the second they defended well, with Westwood gathering under pressure.
Having resisted Everton’s response, Sunderland had another decent chance before the break – Bendtner again unable to capitalise on good supply work, this time from Sessegnon, as he delayed his shot again interminably.
But the game reached half-time with the hosts ahead and they would have been more than happy with that.
Half-time brought another reshuffle, with Craig Gardner replacing the injured Phil Bardsley at right-back – a position the Brummie had played under Martin O’Neill at Villa.
Sunderland were positive at the start of the second half – twinkle-toed work from Bendtner almost releasing Sessegnon.
But the game was turned on its head just five minutes after the resumption when Webb pointed to the spot after Leon Osman skilfully edged his way into the area, miskicked his shot and fell to the ground.
Both Brown and Cattermole were in attendance, but neither touched the midfielder, who kicked the turf and fell over.
But referee Webb pointed to the spot – no doubt encouraged by cheating Osman’s raised arm protesting for a penalty after his air shot.
Webb – no doubt influenced by the Everton fans behind the goal, just as he was when he awarded a dreadful penalty against Sunderland at St James’s Park several seasons ago – blew for a penalty.
Afterwards, the official was to watch replays and realise his error was every bit as bad as the one he made at Newcastle; or the mistakes he made in a Sunderland-Stoke game when he realised afterwards that he should have given the Wearsiders three penalties he refused on the day.
Leighton Baines converted in style, with a ferocious blast high to the keeper’s left.
Sunderland did their best to hit back.
Sessegnon won a corner and Richardson’s inswinger from the right was goalbound before Howard tipped it over.
From the left-wing corner that resulted, Saha almost headed into his own net before Larsson put in a cross which Howard gathered.
Minutes afterwards, Howard came close to gifting Sunderland the lead again when he almost spilled the ball over his line under pressure from Sessegnon.
Sunderland dropped away after that, still rattled by the unjust penalty, with matters not helped by the swirling wind.
Everton didn’t exactly raise their game, but they made an even contest of it – Saha glanced an Osman cross from the left across the face of goal when he might have done better in the 63rd minute, then Osman himself caused problems before a Wes Brown tackle in the area three minutes later.
Sunderland finished the stronger of the two sides, helped in part by the 80th-minute arrival of Jamie McClean, who produced another stirring cameo performance.
But, ultimately, they were not able to overturn the referee’s blunder.
Instead of being 11th today, Sunderland are 14th.
Instead of Sunderland having nine points from their last 12, they have seven.
Instead of O’Neill having three wins from four, he has only two.
This is not O’Neill fault,
It is Howard’s way.
And it is ironic that the man who is widely regarded as the best referee in England has made the worst decision of the season so far, as far as Sunderland are concerned.
Not for the first time either.
Sunderland fans must hope that this is an aberration from the referee rather than the start of a Cahill-style run.