FOR the second season in a row, Sunderland’s visit to the Hawthorns ended with one of the club’s employees standing on the pitch in front of the massed ranks of away supporters.
This time, however, it was Seb Larsson milking the applause for his dramatic late equaliser rather than Paolo Di Canio playing out the series of bizarre remonstrations that would ultimately hasten his departure from the club.
For all that Sunderland remain a work in progress, at least a degree of progress is discernible. Under Di Canio, chaos theory ruled and games such as the one at West Brom merely served to illustrate both the extent of the problems affecting the Black Cats and their then manager’s complete inability to solve them.
That should be remembered in the next fortnight as Guy Poyet and his sporting director, Lee Congerton, desperately attempt to address the gaping holes in the current Sunderland squad before the transfer window closes.
Saturday’s frenetic 2-2 draw might have exposed a number of failings, but it also highlighted how far the Wearsiders have come since the dark days under Di Canio, with team spirit restored and the degree of organisation and quality on display at a completely different level to the early days of last season.
As both Poyet and Larsson observed after the game, had Sunderland thrown away a one-goal lead to slip 2-1 behind 12 months ago, they would almost certainly have gone on to suffer a three or four-goal defeat.
As it was, the resolve and commitment that resulted in Larsson grabbing a deserved 85th-minute equaliser augurs well for the rest of the campaign, and inevitably brings to mind the never-say-die attitude that characterised the remarkable run in April and May that safeguarded Sunderland’s Premier League status. Crucially, the momentum that was generated in the spring has not been lost.
There was also plenty of quality on display at the Hawthorns, with new arrival Patrick van Aanholt providing a potent attacking threat with his overlapping runs on the left, even if his defending will have to improve as he matures, Larsson and Lee Cattermole maintaining the fine form they displayed in the final months of last season and Connor Wickham proving he is capable of attacking effectively from the flanks as well as in a central role. As far as first games go, the positives were certainly there.
“It definitely felt a bit different to the game here last season,” said Larsson. “That wasn’t a good day for us, but we can look back at the turnaround that eventually followed it and I don’t think any of us are going to forget that.
“We’re trying to use all of those memories to help us to push on. We don’t want to put ourselves in the situation of having to do that again – and I’m fairly confident we won’t.
“I’ve been really looking forward to this season – more than for any other season in a long time. I just feel that we’re going places, and I think we’re going to have a decent season.
“There are some encouraging signs, and that’s why it was so important that we didn’t lose the opening game. That would have been devastating, and now at least we have something to build on.”
That said, Poyet cannot afford to ignore the warning signs that were apparent at the weekend, and for all that six new players have arrived this summer, plus the returning Larsson and Santiago Vergini, it is hard not to conclude that what happens off the pitch in the next fortnight will go a long way towards determining whether the next nine months will evolve into another battle against the drop.
Defensively, Sunderland were prised apart too easily, and the absence of a single defensive player on the bench underlined the lack of back-four options currently available.
While it was unfortunate to lose two right-backs to injury in the build-up to the game – Vergini and Billy Jones – the fact that Valentin Roberge had to come in from the cold to play at centre-half, with Wes Brown making the somewhat awkward move to full-back, confirms the dire need for another experienced defender this month.
The sight of Jozy Altidore and Danny Graham offering the only attacking alternatives among the substitutes would be an alarming one if it was repeated come the start of September, while Wickham’s appearance on the flank did much to explain why Poyet is so reluctant to give up on his pursuit of Fabio Borini, even if the striker’s efforts in an unfamiliar role could not be faulted.
“There are areas in the team where we are still missing players for sure,” admitted Poyet. “I can assure you that they will come, although how many is impossible to say.”
Sunderland’s main summer signing so far is Jack Rodwell, with Poyet having shelled out £10m to enhance his side’s attacking threat from midfield. How ironic then that having scored a grand total of two Premier League goals between them in the whole of last season, Cattermole and Larsson matched that figure in the space of 90 minutes.
Cattermole’s fifth-minute strike was a remarkable way to the start the new campaign, with the midfielder, who is hardly renowned for his attacking prowess, drilling a 25-yard rocket into the top right-hand corner.
Roberge wasted a golden opportunity to double Sunderland’s lead, heading wide at the back post, but the visitors were outplayed for the majority of the first half, and while referee Neil Swarbrick’s decision to award a penalty for the slightest of tugs at Victor Anichebe was a soft one, Saido Berahino’s successful conversion meant the half-time scoreline was probably fair.
Berahino scored his second with 16 minutes left, ghosting past a flat-footed van Aanholt to convert Craig Gardner’s chipped cross, but Larsson rounded off a slick passing move to ensure Sunderland would claim an opening-day draw for the fourth time in the last five seasons.