Tuesday 16 January 2018

Black Cats' collapse leaves O'Neill in no doubt of task ahead

Wolves 2
Sunderland 1

Steven Fletcher scores his second, and the winning goal, against Sunderland
Steven Fletcher scores his second, and the winning goal, against Sunderland

Phil Shaw

Now, at least, Martin O'Neill will be under no illusions about the magnitude of the task facing him at the Stadium of Light.

Sunderland, leading through Kieran Richardson's goal early in the second half, not only fluffed an opportunity to double their lead over Wolves from the spot but also conceded one goal to Steven Fletcher 25 seconds later and another with nine minutes remaining.

With 17 minutes to play, the side under the stewardship of Eric Black -- senior coach to the sacked Steve Bruce -- looked to be edging towards only their third victory of the season after Richardson made a blindside run of almost 100 yards before finding the net.

Referee Phil Dowd then awarded Sunderland a penalty as Sebastian Larsson tumbled theatrically after what was, at the most, minimal contact with Jody Craddock on the 18-yard line.

Justice was done when Wayne Hennessey swooped to his left to save the Swede's penalty, and as Wolves countered and Wes Brown inexplicably failed to clear Matt Jarvis' cross, Fletcher converted a sharp downward header.

O'Neill then saw Wolves gain only their second win in 12 matches in controversial style. Jamie O'Hara appeared to use an arm in trying to control a centre by substitute Adam Hammill, the ball breaking for Fletcher to half-volley his fifth goal of the campaign from 12 yards.

It was soon evident that O'Neill's 16-month absence has not dulled his appetite for the fray. Twice in the closing minutes of an unexpectedly open first half he was squirming and grimacing in his seat as both sides came close to breaking the deadlock.

First, Jarvis swung in a cross from the right flank which fellow winger Stephen Hunt met with a meaty left foot only yards from goal. But Hunt's Ireland colleague Keiren Westwood made a stunning left-handed save.

Within two minutes, Ji Dong-Won and Richardson combined for Stephane Sessegnon to flick the ball past Hennessey, only for Stephen Ward to slide the ball off the line.

Westwood had already taken the opportunity to impress the new management team. Following a Jarvis corner in the ninth minute, Wolves had a penalty appeal turned down as Lee Cattermole appeared to barge into David Edwards, but when the ball looped free to Fletcher, Westwood did well to clutch the ball on the line despite appeals it was over.


Sunderland's goal underlined the latent quality O'Neill will hope to coax to the fore on a more regular basis. Sunderland, fielding an entire back line who learned their trade at Manchester United, were forced on to deep defence, and when they cleared a cross, Richardson was barely six yards from his own goal line.

He began galloping upfield as first Nicklas Bendtner and then Sessegnon moved the ball forward.

The latter, showing good pass selection to complement his energy, selflessly rolled the ball into the path of the overlapping Richardson just inside Wolves' 18-yard area. Hennessey, seemingly expecting a diagonal shot into the far corner of his net, moved to his left and was beaten by a fierce shot that tore past him on the near post.

Wolves might have buckled but a combination of Fletcher's opportunism and Sunderland's fallibility ensured an outcome that means O'Neill's reign will start with Sunderland one place below where Aston Villa were when he arrived there -- just above above the relegation zone. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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