ONLY four games into the Premier League season and already there’s a bizarre Groundhog Day feel to Sunderland’s campaign.
Four games, four draws.
Four games in which Sunderland can’t really claim to have been the better side in any match. Three games in which they’ve taken the lead only to be pegged back.
And arguably the biggest Groundhog element of all – all four of Sunderland’s goals coming from just one man: Steven Fletcher.
The Scot seems hell-bent on repaying in double-quick time the £12million Martin O’Neill invested in him last month and without his arrival, you really do wonder how the Black Cats would be faring right now.
He keeps giving them the lead, but his team-mates can’t hold on to it and every week now that Sunderland fail to take the three points, it keeps getting mentioned that the Wearsiders’ last win was in March, more than six months ago.
O’Neill is right not to be too concerned about the false statistic of 12 league games without a win – Sunderland are a different side to last season.
But he’s also right to be pre-occupied with the side’s failure to create and convert chances.
Stephane Sessegnon improves but continues to be short of genuinely incisive.
James McClean has enjoyed nowhere near the freedom of his first few months Premier League football and, worse, seems to believe he has to win games single-handed, while Seb Larsson has so far had little chance to hone his deadly dead-ball skills.
Which leaves Fletcher, once again demonstrating a skill and panache that few Sunderland fans were aware of or expected when he first signed last month.
When the former Wolves man found the back of the net at Upton Park on Saturday in the first meaningful move from either side in the game, it was another fine individual goal, irrespective of Larsson’s superb spade work.
It was the Swede who was quick to capitalise when centre-half James Collins’ loose clearance was deflected into his path on the right wing.
Seizing possession, he advanced before weighing up Fletcher’s clever pull away from his marker and found the Scot with a deep cross to the far post.
The striker still had much to do, but he controlled the ball instantly before driving a left-foot shot across Jussi Jaaskelainen.
The flying Finn managed to get a fingertip to the ball, but he had been undone by the sheer speed with which Fletcher managed his shot and could only divert it into the far corner.
It was the perfect boost to a Sunderland side which, once again deprived of the talents of the injured Adam Johnson, had laboured up to that point to contain a West Ham side bristling with the confidence a fine start to the season can bring a newly-promoted team.
After slipping behind, the Hammers sought only to up their game and they succeeded, carving out a host of chances from which, somehow, they failed to score before the break.
Most of that was down to poor finishing – Ricardo Vaz Te headed a left-wing cross inches wide at the far post in the 23rd minute and Carlton Cole nodded narrowly over the bar in the 34th minute; when both looked favourites to score.
Mohamed Diame and Mark Noble were influential for the home side, but it was Kevin Nolan who was their danger man in front of goal.
In the 36th minute, he held off Craig Gardner well with his back to goal before swivelling on a shot which went wide from just six yards out.
And, on the stroke of half-time, he was involved in the most spectacular moment of the match after Vaz Te did well to gain ground down the right and centre.
Nolan set himself perfectly for the ball, bicycle-kicking a shot back across Simon Mignolet for what would have been a memorable goal had not the Belgian reacted like lightning, diving to his left to punch the ball around the post.
“I was already turning away to celebrate the goal when Mignolet saved it,” said manager Sam Allardyce,
But West Ham did not have it all their own way before the break and Sunderland might have got a second had they made the most of two good openings.
Just before the half-hour, Fletcher drove a wonderful crossfield ball from one half to the other to find James McClean unmarked on the left flank.
The winger had two equally as appetising options – advance and shoot, or pass to Stephane Sessegnon or Jack Colback inside and in better positions.
Instead, he did neither, lashing a shot wastefully wide from long distance.
Five minutes before the break, Sunderland were presented with a gift when Jaaskelainen made a poor pass out of defence – Larsson again the interceptor – but a lack of precision in their passing saw the visitors miss out.
West Ham had played a direct style of football throughout that opening half, but their approach in the second 45 minutes made their earlier efforts look positively Brazilian in comparison.
Every opportunity after the break for the home team saw them launch the ball at Mignolet’s box, sometimes from such a distance and height that it would have been on surprise if it had come down with snow on it.
It’s a crude, brutal but effective approach which has paid dividends countless times for Sam Allardyce and Sunderland would have been expecting it.
It was rough and tumble stuff and Sunderland were reduced to 10 men for five minutes early in the half when the quietly impressive Danny Rose suffered a facial injury.
Sunderland saw out the West Ham surge, protecting their lead up to the hour mark – Vaz Te unlucky not to connect with his side’s best chance as the ball flashed through the six-yard box and into the gloves of Mignolet in the 58th minute.
It was the wide-man’s last involvement as Allardyce made a double substitution, out-and-out attackers Matt Jarvis and Yossi Benayoun coming on for Vaz Te and Matt Taylor.
The changes turned the pattern of play.
Instead of pure bludgeon, West Ham were now looking to threaten Sunderland from all directions, while the Black Cats, for their part, were hoping to exploit the gaps the home side would occasionally leave as they committed themselves forward.
McClean and Fletcher might have done better with half-chances against the run of play – the winger not quite being able to reach fully a centre from the right, the striker unable to succeed with an attempted disguised chip into the top corner of Jaaskelainen’s goal.
Fletcher wasn’t far away with a snapshot later, but Sunderland’s most glaring miss came quarter-of-an-hour from time when substitute David Vaughan, on for Larsson, combined with McClean and the Irishman’s centre from the left found the Welshman completely unmarked at the far post, but, from eight yards, Vaughan missed the ball completely with an attempted, diving header.
All this was played out against a backdrop of West Ham creating chance after half-chance, all of which went begging.
They went desperately close just before Vaughan’s miss, when Collins almost atoned for his earlier mistake – powering a header against the crossbar from a right-wing corner.
But, just at it looked as though they were doomed to huff and puff forever without blowing Sunderland’s house down, they got their equaliser 93 minutes into the game.
Substitutes Jarvis and striker Modiba Maiga combined to keep the ball in play in the Sunderland box on the left, ushering it to Nolan, eight yards out, who hooked a low shot past Mignolet at his near post.
It was a heartbreaking end for a Sunderland side which had defended so doggedly throughout.
But there could be few complaints about the overall scoreline, with West Ham having spent the majority of the game trying to force an equaliser.