Trapattoni looks to secure Pilkington for Ireland
Norwich City 2 Sunderland 1
Ireland goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly has been in touch with the Norwich winger to arrange an Irish passport after Trap travelled to Carrow Road twice in the last month to watch the 24-year-old, who qualifies to play for Ireland though an Irish grandparent.
Both managers will certainly have noticed yesterday's performance as Norwich produced something of genuine quality and spirit to warm their supporters on a bitterly cold afternoon, with Pilkington scoring their second goal after 37 minutes.
An excellent long pass over the Sunderland back line from Bradley Johnson still left Pilkington with plenty to do, but he did it with confidence, running into the penalty area before wrong-footing Carlos Cuellar and switching inside on to his right foot to shoot beyond Simon Mignolet into the far corner of the net.
Martin O'Neill's spectacles must come fitted with a vivid tint of rose. For as his embattled Sunderland side slip towards the fringes of a relegation quagmire, his facade of blind optimism is fooling nobody.
"I said to the players, 'If we perform in the manner we did in the second half, we will be fine'," he reflected after this defeat, with few of the withering words one might expect from a manager whose team have won just two of their past 22 matches.
Admittedly, the second half yielded a few sources of solace for Sunderland, not least the slick movement of Stephane Sessegnon and the cultured left boot of Adam Johnson, but they paid a heavy price for their earlier lethargy.
Falling behind first to Sebastien Bassong's opportunist strike and then to Pilkington's wonderful solo effort, they drew energy from Craig Gardner's goal in response but could not eke out the equaliser to arrest their slide to 17th in the table, one point above the bottom three.
For 25 minutes in the bone-deep Norfolk chill, O'Neill had to watch his players ossify in front of his eyes. Cuellar was especially culpable, allowing Pilkington to cut inside him before dispatching the decisive second goal. As O'Neill desperately seeks ways to galvanise his players after this latest setback, he might like to stress that no team in such peril can afford to wait half an hour before closing down the opposition.
"We were more than tentative in the first half, we were pretty poor," O'Neill admitted. "We found ourselves second to the ball most of the time, and we had to wait until we were 2-0 down before we started to get going. In the second half, we created some great chances and missed them all."
To compound Sunderland's misery, they were also fretting last night over the condition of Steven Fletcher, described by O'Neill as "sore" after a first-half ankle injury. Connor Wickham was an effervescent substitute, but not nearly threatening enough to justify the £12.5m that Sunderland paid for him.
As for Norwich, their upward mobility becomes increasingly difficult to fathom. Their starting XI is ostensibly no better than Championship standard, with the possible exceptions of Bassong and Javier Garrido, on loan from Lazio, and yet they continue to defy all doubters.
Last night they stood level on points with Liverpool. Chris Hughton, a pleasant man finally vindicated in his meticulous methods, has led the club to a nine-match unbeaten run – their best sequence since the heady mid-90s heyday of Mike Walker.
"Sunderland made it a really tough shift for us, so to come through that is testament to the players," said Hughton, who was fielding the same team for the third time in a week.
"We just have to win a game," O'Neill reflected. "We just have to go and win a football match." Sometimes, ladies and gentlemen, it truly is as simple as that. (© Daily Telegraph, London)