AS last season proved, the road to Wembley is a long and winding one, but at least Sunderland avoided the prospect of a breakdown in the West Midlands as they successfully negotiated the first hurdle on their attempt to repeat March’s appearance in the Capital One Cup final.
Three goals in the final 13 minutes settled a previously drab encounter at St Andrew’s, with Jordi Gomez, Adam Johnson and Connor Wickham all finding the net in a late blitz that was out of keeping with an otherwise lacklustre game.
As was the case in last season’s second-round win over MK Dons, Sunderland left it late before blowing away lower-league opposition, and just as last term’s League Cup campaign quickly gathered momentum after a humdrum start, so Gus Poyet will be hoping last night’s victory sparks bigger and better things in the future.
Things might have been different had David Cotterill not drilled against the post on the stroke of half-time, but having restricted Birmingham to a handful of half-chances, it is to Sunderland’s credit that they finally found their own attacking form just as the game appeared to be petering out to a goalless draw.
While Poyet continues to search for another striker in the final week of the transfer window, this is a Sunderland side with a number of potential match-winners and although the visitors’ all-round performance lacked quality, a trio of big-name performers stepped up to the plate when it mattered most. Ultimately, you can’t ask much more than that.
Sadly, Jozy Altidore was not one of those performers, and while the American’s shot set up Johnson’s 87th-minute strike, his failure to justify his recall to the starting line-up was alarming given that he currently remains the only alternative to the attacking axis of Wickham and Steven Fletcher.
It is surely inconceivable that Monday’s deadline will arrive without a new centre-forward moving to Wearside, but Altidore could still find himself filling a prominent role come Tuesday morning and that prospect continues to cause alarm.
All too often he failed to retain possession with his back to goal, and while there were times when he was lacking support, his £6.5m price tag continues to look like an anomaly.
The majority of this summer’s signings were much cheaper, and Poyet handed a trio of free agents their first senior start at St Andrew’s, with one of them, Costel Pantilimon, being prominently involved in the opening five minutes as he turned Paul Caddis’ skidding 25-yard strike around the post.
That proved a rare early moment of incident as Sunderland’s players in particular struggled to find their passing range before the break.
It took just 12 minutes for Poyet to become frustrated at his side’s lack of cohesion, but the decision to switch Johnson and Wickham on their respective flanks did little to increase the Black Cats’ attacking threat.
Altidore lashed a first-time volley over the crossbar shortly before the half-hour mark, while Wickham drilled over four minutes before the break, but the interval arrived without Birmingham goalkeeper Colin Doyle having been tested.
The hosts were no more threatening for large periods, although Mark Duffy enjoyed considerable joy against Billy Jones, who did not look comfortable on the left-hand side of defence as opposed to his more preferred position on the right.
Duffy’s delivery on the stroke of half-time caused problems at the heart of the Sunderland defence, and while Pantilimon did well to smother Wes Thomas’ low shot, the ball broke invitingly for Cotterill, who drilled against the base of the right-hand post.
With a little more composure, the midfielder might have scored, but the let-off failed to wake Sunderland from their slumbers and the visitors continued to toil at the start of the second half.
Altidore’s long-range effort was deflected over the crossbar shortly after the hour mark and, from the resultant corner, Wickham twice failed to force the ball home in an almighty scramble. Still, though, Sunderland had not recorded a shot on target.
That changed in the 67th minute, but while Liam Bridcutt finally forced Doyle into action with a follow-up effort from a blocked free-kick, the save was a comfortable one.
Pantilimon made a similarly routine stop to deny former Newcastle defender David Edgar shortly after, before Stephen Gleeson flashed a fierce snapshot just over the crossbar.
It felt like it was going to take a moment of magic to change things, and it duly arrived with 13 minutes left as Gomez crowned his first Sunderland start with a fantastic debut goal.
Johnson teed up the Spaniard on the left-hand corner of the penalty area, and he drilled a ferocious angled drive into the bottom right-hand corner of the net.
It was a controversial effort as, moments before the Black Cats broke, Blues boss Lee Clark was convinced the ball had gone out of play for a throw in, only for referee Darren Bond to play on.
Suddenly, Birmingham had to push for an equaliser and they were twice caught on the break as Sunderland finished with a flourish.
First, Johnson followed up to steer a first-time finish past Doyle after the goalkeeper had done well to save Altidore’s fiercely-hit effort.
Then, with two minutes left, substitute Emmanuel Giaccherini released Wickham down the left, and the striker drilled home his first goal of the season from an acute angle.