HE celebrates his first anniversary at the club today, but it seems Martin O’Neill is still trying to find the real Sunderland after a tale of two halves at Norwich City.
The Black Cats’ winless run continues after going down 2-1 at Carrow Road, a result that leaves them one place and one point above the relegation places.
When asked to summarise his first 12 months on Wearside last week, O’Neill admitted there was still a lot of hard work to do and that was evident from Sunderland’s first half performance.
The Black Cats found themselves two goals down after 37 minutes and it is fair to say they were being played off the park by Chris Hughton’s side.
It was as bad as Sunderland have been in a season that has offered few high points, but Craig Gardner struck just before the half-time break to give the Black Cats a lifeline.
The performance that followed was in stark contrast to the opening 45 minutes and in truth it was as good as Sunderland have been all season.
However, it proved to be too little too late for the Black Cats and ultimately it was their first-half performance that cost them at Norwich.
The Black Cats now face a massive couple of weeks with Chelsea and Manchester United to come either side of Reading’s trip to the Stadium of Light.
It’s hard to understand how the Black Cats sit 17th in the table a year after O’Neill was appointed, especially given the form they showed in his first three months in charge.
Interestingly, Sunderland were 16th when Steve Bruce was sacked, but it appears O’Neill will be given the time to turn things around as well as funds to strengthen in January.
After losing captain Lee Cattermole to a knee injury last week, O’Neill was forced into making one change at Carrow Road, which saw James McClean come in and start his first league game since the defeat to Everton in early November.
It was an interesting decision from the Black Cats boss, who could have brought Jack Colback in as a natural replacement for Cattermole, but he opted to move Seb Larsson into the middle alongside Craig Gardner to accommodate McClean.
It was a move that would perhaps offer Sunderland a bit more creativity – something they have been lacking this season – but it was clear from the opening stages that they are still struggling to offer Steven Fletcher the service he so badly craves.
The Black Cats couldn’t have got off to a worse start after Norwich took the lead in the eighth minute. The goal came from a Robert Snodgrass free-kick to the right of Sunderland’s penalty area and after the ball had been flicked on by Carlos Cuellar’s hand, former Newcastle United defender Sebastian Bassong was waiting on the line to send the ball past Simon Mignolet.
The goal gave Chris Hughton’s side an early boost and they proceeded to knock the ball round confidently with Sunderland struggling to keep possession.
O’Neill’s men looked nervy at the back whenever Norwich broke forward and Fletcher was almost anonymous in the opening half with his side failing to get into creative positions.
Their first real chance did come from a well-worked corner, though, when Larsson fed the ball to Danny Rose on the edge of the area and he sent a low shot towards goal that Mark Bunn saved.
In a season that has offered some poor displays, the opening 40 minutes saw Sunderland hit a new low and, although Norwich thoroughly deserved their lead, the visitors were producing very little.
Things got even worse eight minutes before the interval when Norwich added a second.
It was another poor goal to concede with Anthony Pilkington latching on to Javier Garrido’s pass to turn Cuellar inside the area before curling a shot inside the far post.
However, in the space of eight minutes things went from bad to worse to better for Sunderland, who despite having created few chances in the first half, managed to get themselves back in the game on the stroke of half-time.
The goal came out of nowhere, but when Adam Johnson passed to Craig Gardner, the midfielder hit a sweeping first time shot across goal and inside the far post to give the travelling fans a glimmer of hope.
Their performance didn’t warrant a lifeline, but somehow they had one. Undoubtedly, Gardner’s goal would have changed the mood inside the Black Cats dressing room at half-time and it meant O’Neill had a foundation to base his comeback team talk on. And that must have been an inspiring one, because Sunderland returned from the half-time break galvanised, albeit without top scorer Fletcher.
The Black Cats attacked from the off and the gap between their midfielders and strikers disappeared with play flowing much better.
Stephane Sessegnon was at the forefront of Sunderland’s attempted revival and he sent in a teasing cross that Ryan Bennett managed to clear out of the path of Connor Wickham, who had replaced Fletcher.
The 19-year-old has been desperate for a chance to impress and despite enduring abusive chants from Norwich fans, the former Ipswich striker looked lively.
Norwich still looked dangerous on the break and Pilkington forced a good save from Mignolet just before the hour mark.
However, it was Sunderland who continued to press forward and Gardner went close to drawing his side level twice in the space of a few minutes.
First, his free-kick smashed against the post with Kilgallon only able to direct his rebound over the bar, before he saw another long range effort blocked on the line by Snodgrass.
Sessegnon continued to cause a threat and forced a good save from Bunn, before breaking down the left and seeing his cross towards Wickham blocked after a neat passing move.
The Black Cats did have the ball in the back of the net a second time when Wickham finished a rebound from Rose’s shot, but just when it looked like the former Ipswich man would return to haunt the Canaries, the linesman waved his flag for offside.