Sunderland test supporters' nerves, but live to fight on for safety

Posted by Colin Randall

Others teams find themselves able to produce the big performance when they have to. Aston Villa a week ago, Wigan and Villa (again) at the weekend spring to mind, and even Newcastle United bounced back from humiliation at home to Liverpool to keep a clean sheet at West Ham.

So what is Sunderland's initial response to dire need, especially after their own humiliation (the 6-1 hiding at Villa)? To look a complete, shapeless shambles devoid of threat for half an hour, conceding a bundled goal to Stoke City's Jon Walters and then losing the last of their three top scorers for the rest of the season.

Monday, Craig Gardner joined Stephane Sessegnon in the sin bin, facing automatic suspension after a dreadful challenge on Charlie Adam brought a straight red card (Steven Fletcher, out with injury, is at least blameless).

Somehow, it still ended Sunderland 1-1 Stoke City.

A miserable first 35 minutes or so gave way to a more positive end to the half. Then, a commendable second period full of endeavour and purpose that forced an equaliser from John O'Shea and resisted Stoke's numerical advantage to avoid conceding further at the other end.

So many Sunderland games seem to be billed as must-win affairs. This was one after the largely self-inflicted woes of Villa Park virtually wiped out the feel-good impact of Paolo Di Canio's massive start as coach, six points from three tough games.

And, as so often in the past, Sunderland failed to rise to the challenge and make a telling start.

Instead, a cleverly placed Adam corner produced an early goalmouth scramble in which Stoke's customary muscle, legal on this occasion, forced Gardner and Simon Mignolet into the sort of defensive uncertainty attackers love. Sunderland were one down and, on the evidence of the frailty evident up front, unlikely to be able to remedy matters.

Danny Graham, a forlorn and lonely figure, continued to prove himself a man who will always produce decent touches but rarely look like scoring. James McClean tries as hard as any player could but has come to look wholly out of place in the Premier League. Adam Johnson and Danny Rose provided some pace and skill, but with Stoke composed and comfortable it was difficult to imagine where a home goal might come from.

You will hear no complaints from me about the sending off. Lee Mason had a respectable game as referee. He may have been exceedingly charitable towards Stoke's former Sunderland midfielder Dean Whitehead -- three yellow-card offences, one booking -- but that sort of leniency happens routinely; none is owed to a player guilty of the sort of reckless challenge that saw Gardner sent off before half-time.

I applaud Gardner's enthusiasm, his willingness to put in a proper shift wherever on the pitch it is required and his ability to take a dependable penalty and crack in the odd goal from midfield. His rapport with supporters is refreshing. But I'd fine him three months' wages for the tackle on Adam.

The second half was infinitely better. Johnson and Rose grew even stronger, Alfred Ndiaye's tidy play was crucial to a more settled midfield approach and Jack Colback was a workhorse at right back.

Still, it seemed no one was capable of scoring until O'Shea, generally a rock in central defence, got up to a Seb Larsson corner and stabbed home an equaliser. Rose went close to winning it, but there were still scrapes to deal with to stop Stoke regaining the lead.

A draw was fair and at least ensures Sunderland cannot descend into the bottom three if Wigan beat Swansea City Tuesday night. The pressure remains intense, however. This weekend's results will have a powerful say on the identity of the third relegation place, and PDC has to work out just how his tired, depleted band of warriors can produce the three points in Sunday's final home game against Southampton that might just about be enough to keep Sunderland heads above water.

ESPN Conversations