SUNDERLAND fans were privileged to see one of the most exciting wingers in the Premier League showcasing his abilities last night.
There was joy for them in watching one of the most natural and dangerous attackers in the division, wearing red and white stripes and underlining exactly why Champions League sides will covet him.
Oh, and that Adam Johnson wasn’t bad either!
For while all the pre-match attention was focused on the impending debuts of Johnson and fellow new recruit Steven Fletcher, it was actually James McClean who did the business of putting the Shrimps to the sword.
The 23-year-old wideman struck in both halves with adept finishes to bring his tally of goals to eight in his first 31 appearances for the Black Cats – the sort of return any Premier League midfielder would be proud of
But, while McClean’s potential is obvious, his was just one of several genuinely impressive displays from young British players all over the pitch in Sunderland colours.
Stand-in full-backs Jack Colback and Craig Gardner were class acts, showing sure touches and precision passing throughout to keep Morecambe on the back foot, while Lee Cattermole looked like the dominating force we know he can be in the middle of the park.
It was new boy Johnson, though, who was undeniably the star of the show for Sunderland.
Stepovers, changes of pace, arrow-like deliveries, powerful shooting, adaptation and invention were all demonstrated by the Easington-born wideman as he and McClean regularly exchanged flanks.
And though he didn’t get on the scoresheet – despite going close on a couple of occasions – he could be satisfied with two assists and the knowledge that in the space of one game he had won over the home fans.
The fixture was, of course, tailor-made for the England man to shine.
Against League Two opposition, Martin O’Neill fielded a side every bit as strong as the one which held Arsenal 0-0 on the opening day of the season – Fraizer Campbell, Kieran Richardson, Carlos Cuellar and Simon Mignolet dropping out to make way for Fletcher, Anderson, Titus Bramble and Keiren Westwood.
Morecambe, beaten 3-1 by Port Vale at the weekend, must have known the game was all but up as soon as they saw O’Neill’s teamsheet – the Shrimps always likely to get the backlash of Sunderland’s game against Reading being washed out at the weekend.
But the visitors deserved credit for the way they went about their jobs.
For the first 10 minutes they were just happy to hang on to the Premier League side’s coat-tails.
Johnson looked dangerous every time he received possession, the £10million man looking to attack at every opportunity – both wingers being continually supported by full-backs Colback and Gardner, who spent much of their time in the opposition half.
Having resisted Sunderland’s opening surge, Morecambe finally got out of their own half in the 10th minute when Izak Reid sprinted on to a long ball to win a corner, but such moments of pressure on the Sunderland goal were few and far between.
McClean was somewhat harshly booked in the 12th minute for a foul on Robbie Threlfall as the visitors at last began to get a little confidence and it was Threlfall who skied a 16th-minute shot as Morecambe threatened to settle.
It took until the 20th minute for the game to really spark into life, when Johnson’s long ball to Fletcher was headed back into the path of Colback, who measured his stride before driving a powerful, low shot goalwards which keeper Barry Roche blocked.
That move got a great roar from a half-full Stadium of Light and Gardner maintained the noise levels when he cut inside in the 21st minute and tried to sneak a cheeky shot just inside the near post, which Roche was impressively alert to.
The Morecambe keeper, though, could do little about Sunderland taking the lead midway through the half after Gardner’s free-kick was deflected out for a corner.
Johnson drove a teasing outswinger in from the right – Seb Larsson is now no longer the only player at the club who can produce genuinely dangerous corner-kick deliveries – and McClean sprinted forward to power a header down and in at the near post.
Morecambe got a chance to get back into it a couple of minutes later when the ball dropped to Sunderland-supporting Richard Brodie on the left of goal, but the Gateshead-born forward sliced his shot horribly wide, underlining the gulf in class between the two teams.
It was a rare opening for the visitors and Sunderland soon resumed full control.
Johnson and Sessegnon showed some lovely touches in attack to earn appreciative applause from the fans and the Wearsiders should have advanced their lead in the 34th minute when McClean put the perfect cross on to the head of Fletcher, but the £12m glanced wide.
Fletcher was to be the one Sunderland player to underwhelm on the night, but no-one should expect miracles just yet from a player whose pre-season was disrupted by an ankle injury and who had played just 45 minutes of a friendly prior to last night.
The cup match will have done wonders for his match fitness and if his was a subdued display, he still worked hard for the team, battling to get on the end of any ball played his way.
Sunderland’s most flowing move of the first half came in the 40th minute and ended with Johnson wriggling himself space on the right before unleashing a powerful right-foot shot which Roche batted away at his near post.
A handball by Nick Fenton two minutes later gave Johnson a chance to put his name on the scoresheet – the ball placed temptingly 22 yards out on the right of goal.
Larsson would have fancied it and been disappointed when Johnson curled it well over the crossbar.
But the winger made amends when he crossed the ball to the Swede in the 44th minute, only for Larsson, quietly efficient in a central midfield role, to also send his effort over.
Morecambe manager Jim Bentley reckons Roche is the best keeper in League Two and the 6ft 4in Irishman was given the chance to prove it last night.
His final contribution of a busy first half was to spectacularly parry away a great cross from Gardner on the stroke of half-time.
That effort ensured the visitors went into the break only a goal down, but few inside the ground were kidding themselves that Morecambe had a chance to get back into the game.
Sunderland just had too much for their opponents and O’Neill admitted afterwards that the potential for complacency and comfort zones from his players was the only real concern he had.
He needn’t have worried.
Though Sunderland were guilty of sleepwalking a little towards the hour-mark – Cattermole the obvious exception with his terrier-like chasing – the Black Cats slowly began to go up through the gears again.
In the 57th minute, Morecambe’s Lewis Alessandra tried his luck from distance with a shot that curled wide of Westwood’s right-hand post – an effort which seemed to galvanise Sunderland.
Johnson lifted a shot just over the bar in the 61st minute after a direct run and, with the home team beginning to get a head of steam up again, they doubled their lead in the 65th.
Gardner flicked the ball into the path of Johnson, who made ground down the right and pulled the ball back for McClean inside the box.
The winger’s first touch wrong-footed the visitors’ defence and he controlled the ball again to drive an awkward-looking right-foot shot across Roche and into the keeper’s bottom right-hand corner.
The obvious flaw in McClean’s game is that he is so utterly left-footed, but it was a weakness that he defied in this game – scoring his first goal with a rare header and his second with an even rarer right foot.
Whether he might have got a perfect hat-trick by producing a left-foot finish, we will never know as O’Neill started to ring the changes in the closing stages – Campbell on for McClean, Louis Saha for Fletcher and David Meyler for Cattermole.
All three new players produced eye-catching cameos against a now fading Morecambe, who had given their all.
But the visitors were able to end the game bloodied but unbowed by way of keeping the scoreline respectable.
Saha had two chances in a minute – instantly deprived of the ball when Sessegnon found him and then slicing a shot straight at Roche from a Johnson centre seconds later.
Substitute Jack Redshaw might even have pulled one back for the visitors in the closing stages when he cleverly worked an opening on the edge of the Sunderland area, directly in front of goal.
Unfortunately for him, he shot straight at Westwood, who, like the rest of his defence, would have taken pride in the clean sheet on what was a night of positives for Sunderland.