A SUMMER of change was always going to be on the agenda when Sunderland secured a return to the Premiership. Manager Mick McCarthy, chairman Bob Murray, the supporters and the existing playing staff all knew major alterations were afoot.

And, bearing in mind West Ham finished 21 points and five places adrift of Sunderland in the Championship last season, you would have thought the Londoners required more fine tuning ahead of life back in the top-flight. Not so.

After Saturday's draw at the Stadium of Light - a point that could have easily been three - McCarthy chose to highlight that Sunderland and not West Ham conducted more operations in the transfer market in the close-season.

"We had seven different players from last season in the team including substitute Daryl Murphy. West Ham had four," said McCarthy, using that as a reason for the better start to the campaign enjoyed by Alan Pardew's men.

West Ham have now lost just once in eight games on their return, a complete contrast to the way Sunderland opened with five successive defeats.

There is no hiding from the fact that the huge turnover in personnel on Wearside has affected Sunderland's start. They drafted in 12 fresh faces and offloaded the likes of Thomas Myhre and Marcus Stewart.

But, eight games in, there is suddenly a genuine claim for a little optimism among McCarthy's squad that relegation can be avoided.

Many of the club's players who had hardly, in some cases never, kicked a ball in the Premiership before are beginning to possess the belief they have the ability to perform at the highest level.

West Ham may have recorded a draw on Saturday night, courtesy of a Yossi Benayoun equaliser which arrived against the run of play, but Sunderland can count themselves unfortunate not to have won back-to-back games in this league for the first time in four years.

Full-back Nyron Nosworthy, a free signing from Gillingham, may not possess the silky skills of Roberto Carlos but his gutsy determination is becoming a hit with supporters and is also helping to keep Sunderland tight at the back.

Former Ipswich and Hartlepool midfielder Tommy Miller energetically covers most of the pitch with his strong running and his second strike in as many games proves he has got his eye for goal back.

There has also been a marked improvement in recent weeks from goalkeeper Kelvin Davis, while Andy Welsh's trickery down the left flank has caused problems for nearly every full-back who has had the displeasure of marking him this season.

Former Czech Republic international Tomas Repka was the latest name to be added to the list of those given a torrid time by Welsh - not bad for a £15,000 buy from Stockport County.

But two of McCarthy's summer of 2004 signings, Dean Whitehead and Stephen Elliott, are the young men being singled out to emphasise that his team are finding their feet in the top tier of English football.

Elliott, who made two top-flight appearances as a teenager at Manchester City, is still searching for his first Premiership goal, but was unlucky not to find the net on Saturday when he was denied by goalkeeper Roy Carroll.

And Whitehead - who only came to the attention of McCarthy when he went to watch Dave Kitson play for Cambridge against Oxford - remains the manager's one to watch.

"Elliott's looked fitter and he caused problems to the West Ham back four," said McCarthy. "As for Dean, he originally caught my eye at Oxford when he had some horrible white boots on.

"He convinced me we should sign him. He's played centre-midfield and right-wing and he played both in the game on Saturday. He's uncomplicated and unfussy. It's nice to have a player like that. But they are all adapting to the pace of games now."

The white boots may have gone, but the energy in Whitehead's play is still the same.

And, although Christian Bassila has operated well in the holding role since his arrival, the midfield pairing of Whitehead and Miller was the basis for much of Sunderland's good play against West Ham.

After Bassila had gone off injured, the duo shared duties in the middle of the pitch and it was Miller who put Sunderland in front on the stroke of half-time.

A strong run into the box - his forte during his time at Hartlepool and Ipswich - ensured he was on hand to shoot high into the net from close range after Justin Hoyte's centre was touched on by Lawrence and pushed into Miller's path by Carroll.

Had Andy Gray scored a routine header from close range earlier in the half, or had Gray not blocked Whitehead's effort on goal from an offside position, then Sunderland would have been two goals to the good for the second week in a row.

But the extra cushion never arrived and Benayoun, a former Newcastle target, hit the equaliser with a right-foot strike into Davis' bottom right hand corner with 18 minutes remaining.

"It's Saturday afternoon, so I always feel sick. When you play as well as that and draw it feels terrible, but there's so much they can be proud of," said McCarthy.

The changes made in the summer by Sunderland are finally starting to bring a change of fortunes to life back in the Premiership - something McCarthy knows will have to continue if the Black Cats are to stay there.

Result: Sunderland 1, West Ham United 1.

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