BOYHOOD Newcastle United fan Steve Howard inflicted Sunderland’s second defeat in three pre-season outings after League One Hartlepool United secured a 1-0 victory.
Howard’s early goal proved enough to separate the sides at Victoria Park, in Sunderland’s third pre-season outing and their first since returning from Peace Cup duty in South Korea.
But it was Pools keeper Scott Flinders who joined Howard in taking the plaudits after the stopper produced a string of smart second half saves, including a stunning parry to deny Fraizer Campbell a late equaliser.
Pools were well-worth their half-time lead after Howard and strike partner Luke James caused a jittery Sunderland defence problems, while the Black Cats struggled to show a cutting edge at the other end and were too often guilty of cheaply surrendering possession.
But Sunderland improved significantly after the break, dominating possession and producing a number of efforts on goal, without finding a way past Flinders.
Ryan Noble was handed his first start of pre-season up front alongside Connor Wickham after grabbing a spectacular winner in Sunderland’s second Peace Cup encounter against Groningen.
Campbell was deployed on the right, with Jack Colback on the opposite flank.
Matt Kilgallon made his first appearance of pre-season after missing the tour of South Korea through injury.
Pools enjoyed the first chance of the game in the seventh minute when Howard chipped the ball down the left-hand channel for the moving James.
The 17-year-old turned and sent an inswinging right-foot cross to the far post, where Tony Sweeney got above Kieran Richardson, but directed his header wide of the upright.
But Pools did take the lead within a minute after a clanger from Titus Bramble.
Simon Mignolet’s poor clearance was headed back over the Sunderland defence by Neil Austin and Bramble misjudged the bounce, letting Howard in on goal.
Bramble’s desperate last-gasp challenge was not enough to halt Howard and Pools’ summer signing sent it low past Mignolet into the far corner.
Howard dinked a shot through Bramble’s legs and wide of the post in the 18th minute after a decent build-up from Pools resulted in the former Derby County man being handed the chance to let fly from 12 yards out, to the left of goal.
Noble should have done better in the 29th minute after Jack Colback flipped the ball past Pools right-back Neil Austin and burst down the left.
Colback chipped a cross to the near post, but Noble didn’t get enough on his glancing header and it bounced tamely across goal.
Sunderland mustered their first effort on target in the 35th minute when Fraizer Campbell pulled the ball to the edge of the area into the path of the onrushing David Meyler.
The former Cork City man wrapped his right foot around the ball and made good contact, but the effort went straight at Scott Flinders.
Martin O’Neill made a change at the interval with Keiren Westwood replacing Simon Mignolet in goal to make his first appearance of pre-season.
Wickham tried his luck from 20 yards in the 52nd minute but his skidding, left footed shot was comfortable for Flinders.
Moments later, Campbell had a dip from a similar position, but his left-footed shot deflected the wrong side of the post.
Meyler found room in the D in the 57th minute and attempted to curl a right-foot shot around Flinders into the bottom corner, but his effort lacked bend and drifted a couple of yards wide of the post.
Sunderland went agonisingly close to an equaliser in the 66th minute after a driving run from Lee Cattermole, deep into the Pools half.
Cattermole fed the bursting Kieran Richardson down the left-hand channel and the left-back smashed a shot across the face of goal which drifted inches wide of the far post.
Moments later, Sunderland went close again, Wickham controlling and turning smartly on the edge of the area and striking a right-foot shot which deflected off Peter Hartley, only for Flinders to produce a smart tip over the top as the ball dipped towards the roof of the net.
It was to be Wickham’s last contribution, with the striker replaced by Hartlepool-born Adam Reed – a switch that saw Campbell revert to a more orthodox central role.
Flinders produced an unbelievable save to deny Campbell in the 77th minute after the Sunderland striker met Colback’s corner from the left with his head from six yards out.
The Pools stopper dived low to his left and somehow managed to palm Campbell’s effort over the bar.
Sunderland made a double substitution moments later, Cattermole and Kilgallon replaced by youngsters Louis Laing and Billy Knott.
The Black Cats continued to push for an equaliser, Richardson – now operating on the left of midfield with Colback at left-back – smashing a low effort across goal from the left of the box, only for the diving Flinders to beat it away two-handed.
Campbell then produced a glaring miss in the first minute of stoppage time, blazing wide from six yards out after the ball dribbled to the striker following an air-shot from Noble.
Hartlepool: Flinders, Austin, Collins, Hartley, Horwood (Holden 63), Franks (Poole 60), Walton (Murray 60), Sweeney, Monkhouse, James (Humphreys 74), Howard (Nish 74). Sub not used: Richards
Sunderland: Mignolet (Westwood 46), Gardner, Bramble, Kilgallon (Laing 79), Richardson, Campbell, Meyler, Cattermole (Knott 79), Colback, Noble, Wickham (Reed 67). Subs not used: Lynch, Deacon
Attendance: 5,424 (3,497 away)