After a compelling performance, Sunderland ultimately came away empty-handed from Wolverhampton, who are becoming a bogey team. The Lads featured their all ex-Manchester Utd back four, and used Lee Cattermole as the holding midfielder, with Ji Dong-Won given a rare start alongside Niklas Bendtner. Larsson was making his 200th top-level English appearance. For Wolves, Jody Craddock returned against his old club, with the ex-Cambridge Peter Reid signing displacing £7 million man Roger Johnson.
• O'Neill, a great appointment!
Both these teams started the game on bad runs, we know how Sunderland capitulated against the Latics last week, and how the current poor run that led to Steve Bruce’s departure. A promising start has quickly morphed into a worrying slide; five points from 11 games is nowhere near good enough. Mick McCarthy was Sunderland manager between 2003-06, and he has his detractors at Molyneux, with critics wondering if he is the man to take the club further forward – the home side have been perpetual strugglers since they were promoted five years ago. He has done well to keep them up.
The line-ups were for Sunderland: 20 Westwood, 02 Bardsley, 05 Brown, 11 Richardson, 16 O'Shea, 06 Cattermole, 07 Larsson, 14 Colback, 28 Sessegnon, 17 Ji Dong-Won, 52 Bendtner, Subs: 24 Carson, 19 Bramble, 08 Gardner, 15 Vaughan, 23 McClean, 27 Elmohamady, 31 Noble.
For Wolves 01 Hennessey, 06 Craddock, 11 Ward, 16 Berra, 23 Zubar, 04 Edwards, 12 Hunt, 17 Jarvis 24 O'Hara, 10 Fletcher, 29 Doyle, Subs: 31 De Vries, 03 Elokobi, 05 Stearman, 14 Johnson, 19 Hammill, 20 Milijas, 09 Ebanks-Blake
First strike was to Sunderland through Sessegnon, who volleyed directly at Hennessey from the right side of the box after four minutes. On eight min, Wolves came close, after a quickly taken corner and a goalmouth scramble ended with Westwood saving from Fletcher.
The first half continued with Sunderland probing intelligently, and having some good chances, but when the home team came forward, Westwood was equal to their efforts on goal in what was certainly not a dull game. Former Cats target Stephen Hunt came really close, though, when on 39 min. Jarvis’ cross came through to the left of the box, but Westwood came up with an amazing reaction save.
After a great run from Ji, Sessegnon poked the squared ball towards goal only for Ward to clear. The BBC text commentary suggested that “Martin O'Neill is almost on his feet. Almost.”
A total of 19 goal attempts illustrated the positive attacking nature of what was an enterprising first half, but would Eric Black and O’Neill, albeit from the stands, manage to get the team to provide the hordes of optimistic away fans with the goal they wanted? I had a memorable trip to Molineux around 2000 when a late Kevin Phillips strike won it for the Cats – great memories of his finishing, and it is truly amazing that the guy is still playing, and scoring.
On 52 min. we saw a really terrific Sunderland goal. A beautiful piece of class from the Lads as they broke from a Wolves corner with great effect, and inevitably our main playmaker Sessegnon was involved. Lee Cattermole played the ball forward, Bendtner provided an impudent back-heel flick and Sessegnon drove forward to feed Kieran Richardson in a left wing position. He fired the ball mercilessly past Hennessey into the top corner, a real screamer which showed the new manager what the current players are capable of.
This is what happens when captain Catts plays the ball forward. I love his competitive attitude, and he takes no prisoners as a midfield enforcer, as his record of five red cards and 48 yellows in five-and-a-half years of Premier League football. Will we have a celebration once he hits 50? Richardson was booked just after his strike for whipping his shirt off to reveal an "I belong to Jesus" t-shirt. Has he truly converted to Christ or into a true left winger?
Sunderland looked to add to their lead, in what looked like an uncertain Wolves defence, with a Ji Dong-Won header on 68 min and an Elmohamady shot after 69 min.
Then Sunderland managed to somehow push the self-destruct button in 25 seconds of incident-packed craziness, which totally changed the game! On 71 min. Seb Larsson was bursting through, and was brought down in the box, and the Black Cats were awarded their first penalty of the season. The Swede brushed himself down, stepped up but hit the ball without his usual conviction and Hennessey saved tamely to his left. The keeper then drop-kicked the ball upfield and a few seconds later the ball was in the Sunderland net after a Jarvis Fletcher header. This time Westwood's left hand could not keep it out.
This passage of play was sadly game-changing, and I bet Larsson wished the ground would just open up and swallow him. And inevitably Wolves had the wind in their sails, with Fletcher somehow contriving a late winner. A cross hit O'Hara on the “upper arm” and Fletcher picked up the rebound in the area, and shot low past Westwood. Referee Dowd must have mistaken his whistle for a mince pie, it was certainly not in his mouth when the ball hit O’Hara.
Sunderland came forward in vain from then on but the game was lost. We had 18 shots on goal and the strikers should have put the game beyond doubt. Bendtner looked slow and often could have taken up better positions in the box, he stayed too deep.
It is great to go away from home and entertain, but coming away with nothing is a bad habit. This defeat leaves The Lads struggling just above the bottom three; in many ways this was a typical performance, playing well and keeping the crowd on their toes, but coming away with nothing from the game. This is what they did at the Emirates and at Old Trafford, and it cannot be allowed to go on. Hopefully O’Neill can organise the team so that the undoubted talent in the squad can come to the fore, and we start winning games again...and Blackburn at home would be a great start.
©Lars J.S. Knutsen