Sunderland 2 Blackburn 1: Chris Young’s verdict

Martin O'Neill and first-team coach Steve Walford
Martin O'Neill and first-team coach Steve Walford
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IN THREE pivotal minutes at Pride Park, Sunderland emerged into beaming sunlight from the coat of jet-black cloud which had engulfed the club for months.

The 2-1 victory against Derby County in Roy Keane’s first game in charge proved to be season-defining for the Black Cats, by instantly installing some belief into a side which had been beaten into submission by the endless cycle of defeats.

Five years on, there were clear parallels to be drawn with the bow of another Sunderland “saviour” at the Stadium of Light yesterday as the mood on Wearside was transformed in an instant.

On both occasions, Sunderland had found themselves stranded alarmingly in the relegation zone and were facing a familiar pattern of defeat when the opposition got their noses ahead.

But two quickfire goals ensured the fervour stemming from a popular managerial appointment developed some momentum and, more crucially, instilled the belief into battle-weary players that they were embarking upon a new dawn.

Of course, Keane benefited from arriving in the hot seat before the end of the transfer window and was able to land several seasoned campaigners, not sullied by the lows suffered by the bulk of their new team-mates.

Martin O’Neill has no such luxury and must find sufficient goal-threat over the exhausting festive period before any potential bolstering to his forward line in January.

But while five of Keane’s new boys went straight into his first starting line-up in the East Midlands in 2006, O’Neill benefited from introducing three players relatively unscarred by Sunderland’s woes this season.

Connor Wickham was the surprise inclusion after only returning to full training on Friday from the knee ligament injury sustained at Manchester United last month.

Other than an effort from range scuffed comfortably wide of the post, Wickham showed few signs of adding to his solitary goal in Sunderland colours, yet the 18-year-old displayed admirable application and maturity.

Wickham led the line far more responsibly than the wandering Nicklas Bendtner had at Wolves seven days earlier and showed sufficient sharpness with the ball at his feet to belie his lack of training.

Likewise, Wickham’s fellow Ipswich Town academy product Titus Bramble made a positive impression on a Sunderland back-line wracked with nerves after his Black Cats career seemed to have reached a conclusion.

Bramble, like unused substitute and midweek reserve team central defensive partner Matt Kilgallon, epitomised the clean slate stemming from a new appointment in the dug-out.

The 30-year-old is never the most elegant of defenders and sticks to the no-nonsense approach, yet he performed the not-insignificant feat of keeping in-form Blackburn hitman Yakubu under wraps.

Yakubu barely won a header and on the one occasion he threatened to expose the rusty Bramble, knocking it beyond the centre-half into the penalty area early in the first half, the ex-Newcastle man recovered with an inch-perfect sliding tackle.

But it was the third player absent during the slump which ultimately saw Steve Bruce dismissed, who proved decisive in altering the pattern of the game.

Before the introduction of James McClean, the ball had been a hot potato as Sunderland went sideways and resorted to hopeful and hopeless inswinging crosses onto the forehead of Christopher Samba.

Perhaps if Bruce had still been in charge, then Ahmed Elmohamady, rather than McClean would have been the substitute chosen to present Sunderland with a different dimension from out wide.

Yet O’Neill was at an ice-cold Eppleton CW last Thursday to see McClean shine against Manchester United’s reserves, to the point where Sunderland’s hidden gem could have easily made his Premier League debut in the starting line-up.

As it was, McClean had to wait until 15 minutes from time to make his Sunderland bow, but when he knocked the ball beyond Grant Hanley and whipped in an inviting ball across the face with his first contribution, O’Neill’s side finally had an outlet.

The crowd realised it, too, and there was a buzz every time the ex-Derry City winger received the ball, sparking renewed energy throughout the side and culminating in David Vaughan’s spectacular leveller.

The fresh faces also helped to carry those who had seen their confidence hit rock bottom as Bruce headed to the exit and Sunderland slumped into the drop zone, none more so than the former Manchester United trio of John O’Shea, Wes Brown and Phil Bardsley.

In O’Shea and Bardsley’s mitigation, both struggled with niggling injuries last week, but the distribution from the full-backs was wayward throughout.

Brown looked similarly unassured, although perhaps the 32-year-old and O’Shea have been hit more than most from Sunderland’s position, given both have spent an entire career where defeats are at a premium.

As became a trait of Keane’s Sunderland though, O’Neill’s men grabbed a dramatic, late winner and that will significantly lift those dangerously close to getting used to defeat.

The manner of victory should not mask the flaws which have plagued Sunderland throughout 2011.

The season is not burning bright yet and Sunderland’s position remains precarious, particularly given the calibre of opposition in the next four games.

But yesterday at least presented Sunderland with some kindling for O’Neill to ignite.