Reality check for poor Black Cats

WHEN Martin O’Neill took over at Sunderland in early December, he never expected things to go as smoothly as they have in the first few months.

After winning seven of his first 11 Premier League matches and sealing a place in the quarter- finals of the FA Cup, the early success he achieved helped to paper over the problems which had existed beforehand.

On Saturday, arguably when he would have least expected it, he was given an insight in to what it could have been like. And more. Yet a mark of his work is that there is no reason to panic.

Not even in the final few months of Steve Bruce’s tenure did it get as bad as this.

Never before this season had Sunderland lost by more than one goal, so to have returned to Wearside on the back of a 4-0 defeat must have hurt those in red and white.

Even O’Neill, whose animated celebrations by the touchline have become a regular feature during Sunderland’s recent revival, looked a far more pensive figure.

Instead of punching the air in delight, the Northern Irishman stood pensive, with his right hand holding up his chin for long periods at The Hawthorns, wondering where it had all gone wrong.

This was a day to forget for O’Neill. It was a day to forget for his players. It was also a day to forget for all of the fans who had turned up expecting Sunderland’s excellent run of form to continue.

From the moment Peter Odemwingie glanced a header beyond goalkeeper Simon Mignolet inside three minutes, there was no way back.

West Brom ran them ragged from start to finish in a match that could have ended with an even greater deficit.

Did O’Neill show a different side 14 weeks after accepting the offer to succeed Bruce at the Stadium of Light?

“The manager is the type of manager who talks his way through what we did wrong,”

said a clearly subdued Phil Bardsley.

“I don’t think him shouting and bawling would help that much. We all know in ourself what we did wrong. Each and every one of us was way below par out there and I think as a group of lads we are honest enough to admit that.

“We want to finish in the top half of the table. It’s a big challenge for us and hopefully days like this will not come around too often.”

After four league games without defeat, Sunderland have now endured back-toback reversals in the league either side of sealing a place in the last eight of the FA Cup.

Any more displays like the one at West Brom and the hopes Sunderland have of salvaging a top-half finish or a Wembley appearance from a season which started so woefully under Bruce will disappear.

“It was a reality check. Absolutely,”

admitted Bardsley, after West Brom delivered a victory at home for the first time since November.

“We didn’t turn up and we didn’t have a go. We just didn’t see this coming. The dressing room is a different sort of place to what it has been. We have to dust ourselves down and go again for a massive game against Newcastle.”

There are ten points separating Sunderland from their North-East rivals ahead of the trip to St James’ Park on Sunday, but O’Neill will be more concerned with trying to ensure his players do not dwell on the woe at West Brom.

With the exception of skipper Lee Cattermole, who looked afraid to stamp his authority on the game in fear of picking up a tenth yellow card that would have triggered a two-game ban, there was not a Sunderland player to come out with much credit.

Passes went astray, the marking was awful and West Brom were first to every ball, second ball and nearly everything else.

The tone had been set when Sunderland failed to clear an early cross into the box properly. Youssouf Mulumbu then got a second chance to make Sunderland pay and Odemwingie lost Kieran Richardson to flick a header beyond Mignolet.

Winger James McClean, who turned in his worst display so far in front of Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni, wasted a fantastic chance from Bardsley’s cross to equalise and after that it was pretty much one way traffic.

And just as Darlingtonborn playmaker James Morrison’s influence was growing, he charged the full length of the pitch to nod in Jerome Thomas’ cross four minutes before half-time – again after being afforded too much freedom down Richardson and McClean’s flank.

O’Neill, whose decision to start with the diminutive Stephane Sessegnon up front on his own against two 6ftplus defenders backfired, attempted to turn things around by introducing Nicklas Bendtner and Fraizer Campbell after half-time.

But after West Brom goalkeeper Ben Foster picked Bardsley’s cross out of the air, his quick throw set the excellent Morrison clear down the left.

The former Middlesbrough man fed the equally impressive Marc-Antoine Fortune, who then rolled to the edge of the area where Odemwingie was on hand to slot in his second just three minutes in to the second half.

No matter what O’Neill tried, it failed to come off, even though Cattermole and Craig Gardner had long-range efforts before Campbell was unfortunate to have a goal ruled out for offside. Then in injury-time West Brom completed the win.

This time Fortune turned Cattermole and picked out Morrison. After rolling across to Graham Dorrans, the Scotland international picked out Keith Andrews who curled high in to Mignolet’s net to make it four.

This was an afternoon to forget for O’Neill.

“We never established ourselves on the game,” said Bardsley. “We gave the ball away, we were sloppy all over the pitch. We didn’t stop crosses, every header every second challenge, they won.

“We are not like that, we are a dogged team and here we were second best to everything.

I just hope it never happens again because that just wasn’t good enough. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.”

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