FIVE new faces brought an injection of vibrancy and increased pace. But if Steve Bruce was hoping for the perfect start, old problems returned to haunt Sunderland on day one of the Premier League campaign.

No matter how impressive a team looks going forward, or how exciting a group may look on a first outing together, potential is worth nothing without being able to hold on to a lead.

And it’s that, helped along largely by an inexperienced official’s inconsistency and Lee Cattermole’s naiveté, which ultimately cost the Black Cats a morale-boosting opening day victory.

For the best part of an hour there only looked like being one winner. Sunderland dominated a first-half which ended with Cattermole being shown the red card almost 20 minutes after Darren Bent had opened the scoring.

Birmingham City did not know how to handle a new-look team buoyed by the drive and tenacity of Jordan Henderson and Cattermole from the middle, with Egyptian Ahmed Elmohamady lively down the right, plus Fraizer Campbell and Bent linking well in attack.

Anyone who took an interest in Sunderland last season, however, will know they have a tendency to press the self destruct button. Plenty of summer arrivals has failed to change that.

On eight occasions last season, Bruce had to look on as his players threw away winning positions in the Premier League to miss out on three points. One game in to the new campaign and they have done it again.

Bent’s precisely struck penalty might have set Sunderland on their way, followed as the hour approached by Stephen Carr’s own goal when he headed Henderson’s long pass beyond Ben Foster, but there was an over-riding feeling of disappointment at full-time.

“It was nice to get a goal,”

said Bent. “It would have been even better had we got three points. It’s the same as last season.

When we go a goal up we need to hold on to it. We dropped too many points last season doing that. The team played really well and this feels like a kick in the teeth. We have to move on.

“What is most disappointing is that before the game, the gaffer was stressing that set pieces was where they were dangerous. He said not to give any free-kicks away and two set pieces were our undoing.”

With Cattermole dismissed after referee Anthony Taylor had let a number of harder tackles go unpunished, Sunderland had the heartbeat of their midfield taken away. And while Henderson was superb, eventually Birmingham’s increased tempo late on proved too much for the weakened home side.

Both goals arrived from Sebastian Larsson’s deliveries.

The first, 13 minutes from time, saw the Swede’s back post centre after a short corner, conceded by a wayward back header from £5m man Titus Bramble, fall to the head of Scott Dann.

Dann’s downward header looked pretty harmless, but debutant goalkeeper Simon Mignolet allowed the ball to squirm through his legs and over the line.

Eleven minutes later it was two. This time Larsson’s freekick caused problems in the Sunderland defence, with City’s new 6ft 8in striker Nikola Zigic’s presence complicating things. Eventually, in a crowded area, Liam Ridgewell’s header dropped off Kieran Richardson’s boot and beyond Mignolet.

Birmingham had earned a point from nowhere and they could quite easily have won it in injury-time, when Zigic, a £6m signing from Valencia, struck a yard wide of Mignolet’s right post with a stinging drive.

The frustrated Sunderland fans were left to reflect on how their team had let another lead slip in front of a crowd clearly optimistic for the new season.

It had all been going so well.

Steed Malbranque had gone close when Campbell earned the penalty, despite looking like he was outside the box when Carr brought him down. Bent, needing no second invitation, precisely dispatched low into Foster’s bottom right.

Bent scored 25 in his first season at Sunderland, eight of which arrived in his first nine outings for the club, and still missed out on a World Cup place with England.

“After the whole World Cup and everything, I was desperate to come back. It’s always nice to score in the first game of the season,” said the 26-year-old, who shrugged off the back problem which prevented him from playing for England in midweek.

“My dad always says, the hardest one to get is number one. That’s out of the way now.

I can look to my next target.”

Whenever Birmingham did break in that first half, Bramble and the superb John Mensah were mainly solid as a unit at the heart of the defence, assisted down the flanks by the energetic and effective Nedum Onuoha and Richardson.

Birmingham manager Alex McLeish was disgusted with his players, continually scribbling down areas to improve for the second-half in his notebook.

The reality, however, is that Cattermole did his teamtalk for him.

Cattermole had already been harshly yellow carded for kicking the ball away before receiving his second from 31-year-old official Taylor, taking charge of his third top-flight fixture, for crashing in to Lee Bowyer from behind shortly before half-time.

Bruce was disappointed with Cattermole, angry with Taylor and Bent admits the number of cards – 82 yellow and nine red last season – needs to be significantly reduced this season if Sunderland want to progress towards the top ten.

“The gaffer talked to us in the week about red cards and silly tackles,” said Bent.

“Catts was unfortunate to get sent off, but it’s something we need to clamp out. We were 1-0 up and cruising.

“We got 2-0 up, but to go down to ten men it was only going to get harder.

“It’s just a case of needing to clamp down on silly bookings.

If it’s a tackle then you can take it, but when you kick the ball away and stuff you are asking for trouble.

“The second I thought was nothing. It was not even late and the referee decided to send him off. There were lots of those, where people didn’t get booked. You know if you have been booked, though, that you need to hold off a little. Maybe come off the gas a bit.”

Mignolet only had one save to make from Zigic before he made a mess of Dann’s header that got Birmingham back in to things, while Sunderland’s other debutant, Cristian Riveros, struggled to adapt in the 27 minutes he had on the pitch.

Being unable to hold on to a two-goal lead is hardly the start Bruce was looking for from his new boys but, with more signings likely to arrive in the next 15 days, the Sunderland chief knows it is hardly the worst way to open either.


Goals: 1-0: Bent pen (24, struck low and hard in to Foster’s bottom right)

2-0: Carr OG (56, headed Henderson’s long pass into his own net)

2-1: Dann (77, rose to nod Larsson’s centre down and through Mignolet’s legs)

2-2: Richardson OG (88, Ridgewell’s downward header hit floored Richardson’s boot and rolled in)

Bookings: Carr (24, foul), Cattermole (28, dissent); Richardson (30, foul); Bent (66, dissent); Johnson (71, foul); Gardner (90, unsporting behaviour)

Sendings-off: Cattermole (44, second bookable offence)

Attendance: 38,390

Referee: Anthony Taylor (Manchester) – not quite as bad as Steve Bruce suggested, but still got decisions wrong and was too quick to dish out cards. 4

Entertainment: ✰✰✰


4 Mignolet: Had a very quiet Premier League debut until he let Dann’s header through his legs for the equaliser;

6 Onuoha: Strong in the tackle, good on the ball but lost Dann for the first City goal

7 Bramble: Completed a number of his trademark no nonsense challenges but his misplaced header conceded the corner that gave City a lifeline

8 MENSAH: Made one stunning tackle on Jerome that summed up a sensational return to Wearside

6 Richardson: Has looked capable as a full-back for a while and now has the No 3 shirt to prove it;

6 Elmohamady: Faded after the restart when he had to defend more, conceding a free-kick that led to the equaliser

4C attermole: Had helped to set the tone before his sending off, which was as much silly as it was harsh

8 Henderson: Was the driving force in the middle for the first half and the anchor man after the restart

6 Malbranque: Not at his best but never wasted possession and always looked capable of a bit of magic;

6 Bent: Clinically dispatched his penalty beyond Foster and full of running throughout

7 Campbell: He earned the first goal with his running and his presence also contributed to the second.


Riveros (for Malbranque 63): Ineffective after introduction. 5 Welbeck (for Bent 83) Waghorn (for Elmohamady 90) (not used): Carson (gk), Bardsley, Da Silva, Zenden.

BIRMINGHAM (4-4-2): Foster 6; Carr 4 (Gardner 65, 5), Johnson 6, Dann 7, Ridgewell 6; Fahey 4 (McFadden 46, 5), Ferguson 6, Bowyer 5, LARSSON 7; O’Connor 6 (Zigic 58, 7), Jerome 6.

Subs: Taylor (gk), Murphy, Madera, Parnaby.


JOHN Mensah – reminded Steve Bruce and the Sunderland fans why they desperately needed him back on the pay-roll.