Sunday, December 4, 2011
O'Neill gets idea of task ahead
Sunderland came to celebrate a manager, one capable of restoring optimism, of reviving a troubled team and of rendering relegation less likely. They found one, too; just not the one they envisaged. While Martin O'Neill adopted a watching brief ahead of his official unveiling, one of his predecessors prospered on the touchline.
• Sunday: Victories for Stoke, Wolves
• Saturday: Big boys all win
• Premier League Team of the Week
• Premier League gallery
The immutable law of the ex dictated that Mick McCarthy might damage his former club. He did, though, with the Black Cats' self-destructive streak, much of the harm was inflicted by Sunderland themselves. McCarthy, who oversaw 31 defeats from 37 Premier League games as Sunderland manager, could savour their latest setback.
They were beaten by their past and their present alike. Their history was sufficiently glamorous that, half a century ago, a Northern Irish boy was dazzled by big names like Charlie Hurley into becoming a Sunderland supporter. Now O'Neill has been confirmed as manager, charged with taking the Wearsiders to heights they last touched in his boyhood.
His is a mixed inheritance. Sunderland are a side that, for the second successive week, took the lead and lost, one that, once again, were guilty of profligacy. Theirs is a lopsided squad, short of players in some positions and top heavy in others, struggling to find a winning formula and lacking goals from the forwards.
That was highlighted by their fellow strugglers. Steven Fletcher's match-winning brace took his season's tally to five for Wolves, more than the whole of Sunderland's strike force; not for the first time, Asamoah Gyan's abrupt departure to Al Ain cost the Black Cats, left short of incision in his absence. Ji Dong-Won and Nicklas Bendtner both played parts in Kieran Richardson's goal but were otherwise ineffective.
Fletcher's finishes meant Wolves, who began with four points from their previous 10 games, won 2-1 and ended up overhauling McCarthy's former club in both the match and overall standings. "It looked like two fairly ordinary teams scrapping at the bottom of the league," said a characteristically blunt McCarthy.
It was a fair assessment, but Wolves' plight worsened before it improved. As Sunderland counter-attacked at pace, the twin enigmas on the left flank combined. Stephane Sessegnon released Richardson, whose rising, rasping shot flew in. "A super goal," said McCarthy.
But a one-goal lead can be dangerous; it is for Sunderland, anyhow. The impetus for the turnaround was the opportunity to seal the points. When Jody Craddock hung out a leg, Larsson took flight to such an extent that he threatened to become the first Swede in space. There was no contact but both referee Phil Dowd and McCarthy were conned. "I thought it was a stonewall penalty," admitted the Wolves manager. "If he didn't touch him, they got what they deserved."
Yet, pleasingly for many, Larsson's antics backfired. Wayne Hennessey held his spot kick - "had it gone in the bottom corner, it would have killed us off," McCarthy admitted - and Sunderland's caretaker manager Eric Black accepted: "The confidence and energy drained a little bit."
They were transferred to Wolves, who went upfield and scored, Matt Jarvis' cross being converted by Fletcher, aided by desultory marking. The Scot then hooked in a half-volley after Jamie O'Hara had chested the substitute Adam Hammill's cross into his path.
The winger was one of two replacements who made a difference, McCarthy providing his own input into the turnaround. "If other people want to give me the credit, that's fine," he said, though accepting it might have been a different outcome if O'Neill had been more proactive.
"I wouldn't use what has been happening this week as an excuse," Black added. With Sunderland's past in the opposition dugout and their future in directors' box, their present was obscured. Now Black retreats to the shadows with the wrong sort of 100% record.
"There are a lot of good footballers at Sunderland, and there's an exceptionally good team spirit," he said. "I'm sure Martin O'Neill will galvanise that. Martin will have seen the strengths that we have but I think he'll also know the problems."
The former Sunderland manager asserted bluntly: "I don't do advice." He is, he said, a friend of O'Neill's, before adding: "I am thrilled I've made his job harder." With friends like McCarthy, who needs enemies?
MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Fletcher - Not the dominant player over 90 minutes, but goals change games and Fletcher's record for Wolves - 15 goals in only 22 league starts - is outstanding.
WOLVES VERDICT: It is now back-to-back wins at Molineux and, as McCarthy pointed out, victories against Wigan and Sunderland are especially important in the scrap at the foot of the division. The manager made a major decision by dropping his captain, the £7 million signing Roger Johnson, for the veteran Craddock. A bold decision paid off. Jarvis, who has struggled for form this season, delivered some terrific crosses.
SUNDERLAND VERDICT: It underlined the difficulties of the task O'Neill faces. Perhaps the most pertinent comment Black made was: "I'm confident there's enough quality in that dressing room to turn things around." There is, as Richardson's goal and some of the unpredictable Sessegnon's skill showed, but the task is to form a team and to find a striker.