SO much for home advantage ...
Sunderland got their run of four home games out of five off to the worst possible start as they slumped to their biggest defeat of the season.
And yet, as is so often the case in the cold light of day, there were positives to take out of the game as well as negatives – not that Sunderland fans were feeling that way as they streamed angrily out of the Stadium of Light exits following a third home defeat in a row.
It was hard to blame them after watching the home side shoot themselves in the foot twice before the break – sloppiness involved in both goals conceded after what had been a pretty evenly balanced opening.
Martin O’Neill fielded the same side which performed so well the previous week at Fulham in gaining the Black Cats their first away win since February, and he was rewarded with an enterprising start from his players.
Adam Johnson produced the first shot on target in the fifth minute, cutting in from the right to drive a low shot goalwards. The effort lacked power, but keeper Boaz Myhill, in for the injured Ben Foster, still looked concerned by it.
And the former Hull goalie was even more troubled in the 18th minute after an individual piece of skill from the now in-form Stephane Sessegnon, who lifted the ball over a defender before stabbing a right-foot shot goalwards.
Myhill got down well to save again, palming the ball inches wide of his right-hand post.
Albion are not in a Champions League position for nothing though.
They have a system which works for them – two players sitting in front of a solid back four while three players look to support Shane Long in the lone striker position and looked relatively comfortable.
They were industrious in defence, played with the sort of confidence you would expect, given their start to the season, and played good football with short, neat passing.
Their intelligent play could have won an unexpected reward in the 20th minute when John O’Shea, already booked for a foul on the lively Long, produced another challenge which left the Irish striker on the turf.
O’Shea appeared to impede Long and could easily have received his marching orders, but referee Mike Dean had seen a hopefulness in the forward’s theatrical dive to the floor and booked the Albion man instead.
It was a let-off that Sunderland almost capitalised on in the 25th minute when Seb Larsson put a free-kick in from the right and Sessegnon glanced a header goalwards at the near post which Myhill did well to parry on his line.
The ball ran loose, but no-one was there from the home side to follow up.
The game changed on the half-hour, though, when the visitors took the lead with a goal from nothing.
Chris Brunt picked up a loose ball on the right, just inside the Sunderland half, and pushed it down the channel.
Johnson should have cut it out, but his poor touch only helped Peter Odemwingie to pass the ball inside to Zoltan Gera, who was not closed down quickly enough and he struck a curling, right-foot shot goalwards from 25 yards which Mignolet could only fingertip into his inside side netting, diving to his left.
It was a tough way to fall behind after restricting Albion’s attack so well in the opening 30 minutes, and injury was added to insult when Lee Cattermole pulled up with a knee strain after putting in a cross from the left which John O’Shea almost succeeded in curling into the top corner of the Albion goal.
Gardner replaced Cattermole in the 35th minute, but Sunderland had lost their rhythm with the skipper’s departure – too many moves breaking down cheaply.
The half looked to be petering out – minds already turning towards the break and how Sunderland might look to improve in the second half, when their jobs were made that much more difficult by an uncharacteristic howler from Mignolet.
Brunt celebrated becoming West Brom’s leading Premier League appearance maker by earning an assist in the 44th minute with a hopeful chip over the top – although, in fairness, the assist should perhaps go to the Sunderland keeper.
Although Long followed the ball in, it was a routine gather for Mignolet and he was a comfortable couple of yards closer to possession than his opponent.
But, fatally, he took his eye off the ball for a second as the striker approached and that was enough to cause him to mishandle as Long gleefully nipped in to nick the ball away and pass it into an empty net.
Devastated Mignolet buried his head in the turf in disbelief, but he was to redeem himself with a brilliant 49th-minute block to thwart Long in a one-on-one which could have left the Wearsiders three down.
Sunderland had come out in an attacking frame of mind, enhanced by the substitution of James McClean for O’Shea, who failed to reappear after the break having aggravated a calf strain.
The hosts worked hard but just could not find a final ball and all the while Albion played patient stuff, looking for killer passes themselves from which to pick Sunderland off.
Johnson was unlucky with what looked like a hopeful 53rd-minute snapshot from distance, but it almost did for the unconvincing Myhill, who flapped at on his line and got lucky in spooning the ball away.
Left-back Danny Rose, who was busy for Sunderland in attack, produced the tackle of the match to dispossess Billy Jones in the Sunderland penalty area, and the Black Cats went on the attack, with Steven Fletcher unlucky to see a header, from Larsson’s right-wing cross in the 56th minute, drop just over the crossbar.
Sunderland continued to hold the upper hand in the minutes that followed, but Albion were threatening on the break with both Brunt and Odemwingie putting great balls across Sunderland’s six-yard box which were just crying out to be put away.
With Albion having the confidence to swap two of their dangermen in the 69th minute – Odemwingie and Long being replaced by Romelu Lukaku and Marc-Antoine Fortune – Sunderland made their last throw of the dice in the 73rd minute when Colback was removed in favour of striker Louis Saha.
Defensive midfielder Colback has played in every one of Sunderland’s Premier League games this season and has played well, but his form has dipped in recent games and it was a sign of fans’ exasperation that they applauded the switch to an even more attacking formation.
It was followed by an almost instant reward as Gardner – celebrating his 26th birthday at the weekend – marked it with a fine goal from a free-kick.
He had already gone close with a set-play just before half-time – a finely struck free-kick which Myhill flapped clear on his goal-line.
But there was nothing the Albion keeper could do in the 73rd minute when Gardner hit a powerful shot, from the left of goal, which took a slight deflection off Fortune in the wall and flashed high into the far corner of goal.
That goal gave Sunderland fresh hope and they pressed forward with more zip, Sessegnon seeing a 75th-minute shot deflected out for a corner.
Sunderland had been 2-0 down in this fixture last season but came back to make it 2-2 and you sensed it could happen again.
Barely had hope been restored though before it was snatched away, and in cruel circumstances, too.
Liam Ridgewell dived under Adam Johnson’s clumsy penalty-box challenge in the 81st minute and although replays clearly showed no contact, no-one could blame referee Mike Dean too much, from his angle, for giving the spot-kick.
If the award of the penalty was fortuitous, its conversion was emphatic, Lukaku thumping a scorching right-foot shot into the bottom right-hand corner of Mignolet’s goal.
“The penalty, or non-penalty, was undeniably important in the context of the game,” O’Neill reflected, with some under-statement afterwards.
“I had really fancied us getting back into it up to that point.”
Two goals down again with 10 minutes remaining, Sunderland could easily have wilted.
Instead they redoubled their efforts and gained an 87th-minute reward when, from a left-wing corner, Fletcher headed powerfully goalwards, Myhill blocked on his line and Sessegnon was there a couple of yards out to rifle a shot high into the net.
Four minutes were added on at the end, and Sunderland threw everything forward looking for another goal, but when it came, it went Albion’s way.
Lukaku, who had fired a shot against the woodwork seconds earlier, broke and found Fortune with a fine, angled pass from the right.
The former Celtic striker was composed in pulling the ball back from left of goal before curling a right-foot shot around the dispirited Mignolet from eight yards.
It was a scoreline, on balance, which Sunderland did not deserve.
Albion had been the better side over the course of the 90 minutes, but it took a penalty that never was to save them from a nervy finale.
The visitors deserve credit for their efforts, though, and it just shows you how valuable confidence can be in away games.
Next up at the Stadium of Light are Queens Park Rangers, whose confidence must be as low as their league position.
Sunderland have to exploit that tomorrow right or risk a drop towards the relegation zone their forthcoming opponents have inhabited all season.