x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

O'Neill's tall order to turn results around at Sunderland

Wolves counterpart Mick McCarthy says Wayne Hennessey's penalty save was the catalyst for his side's fightback in win 2-1 at Molineux.

Wolves winger Stephen Hunt, right, nicks the ball away from Sunderland's Kieren Richardson.
Wolves winger Stephen Hunt, right, nicks the ball away from Sunderland's Kieren Richardson.

WOLVERHAMPTON // The theory was that, in Martin O'Neill, Sunderland have appointed a proven winner. But as their new manager watched on from the directors' box before taking charge of the side for the first time, they were defeated by a proven loser.

Worse than that, it was their proven loser. Mick McCarthy's 37 Premier League games as Sunderland manager contained an excruciating 31 defeats, a record far inferior to that of the recently sacked Steve Bruce. At Wolverhampton Wanderers, however, he has displayed the handy habit of keeping their heads above water and a slump was ended at the expense of his former club.

Ten previous games had yielded four points; this, courtesy of Steven Fletcher's brace and a stunning comeback, brought three more to leapfrog Sunderland in the table. Yet while football is a game of 90 minutes, this turned in the space of a few seconds.

A goal to the good, Sunderland, under the caretaker stewardship of Eric Black, were awarded a rather dubious penalty. A side with a winning habit would have sealed the points; instead, Sebastian Larsson's spot kick was held by Wayne Hennessey, Wolves promptly surged upfield to score.

"It's amazing, the impetus just swings," said McCarthy. "The penalty save was the catalyst. Had it gone in the bottom corner, it would have killed us off."

That would have been unjust. While a typically honest McCarthy initially thought the award was justified, Larsson flew over Jody Craddock's leg without the former Sunderland defender making any contact. McCarthy feared the worst. "When Jody came walking towards me, I thought he'd been sent him off, but he had done his hamstring," the Wolves manager said.

Instead of being a man and two goals down, his side were soon level. Hennessey held Larsson's tame shot and Wolves advanced rapidly. Matt Jarvis ducked inside and delivered a cross that Fletcher headed in.

The Scot's fourth of the season was promptly followed by a fifth. Jamie O'Hara chested down Adam Hammill's cross - though there was a hint his arm was involved - for Fletcher to hook in a half volley with masterly precision. "When he's been fit, he's been prolific for us," said McCarthy.

Indeed, Fletcher's finishing provided a contrast between the two clubs. Their specialist strikers have only managed four league goals between them, a tally that Nicklas Bendtner and Ji Dong-won failed to increase.

O'Neill brings charisma and enthusiasm but he cannot introduce another striker until January. "There are a lot of good footballers at Sunderland, and there's an exceptionally good team spirit," Black argued. "I'm sure Martin O'Neill will galvanise that."

But the short-term concern is to stop damaging trends continuing. This was the second successive week when Sunderland led and then lost. On each occasion, the goals they conceded were avoidable, with Fletcher left unattended to score his first.

And yet the theory that Sunderland are in a false position was underlined by their goal, a strike of counter-attacking class. From Wolves' corner, Sunderland-attacked at pace. Bendtner's flick released Stephane Sessegnon. He, in turn, found the overlapping Kieran Richardson, whose rasping shot flew past Hennessey. "A super goal," said McCarthy. "He's hit it with such power."

Before then, as the Wolves manager bluntly admitted, little of note happened. "It looked like two fairly ordinary teams scrapping at the bottom of the league," McCarthy added.

In that time, each had one notable chance. Keiren Westwood had responded brilliantly when Wolves' wingers combined, Jarvis delivering a delightful cross and Stephen Hunt arriving at pace to meet it with the sort of shot that normally has the net billowing. Not this time, thanks to the goalkeeper's reactions. Then Sessegnon sashayed forwards to beat Hennessey, but not the covering Stephen Ward, with a flicked shot.

It was an indication of Wolves' resourcefulness. Their unity was apparent, on and off the pitch, when they trailed. "There wasn't a dissenting voice in the place," said McCarthy, aware the Molineux crowd have not always proved as patient. "They stuck with me and stuck with the players."

Their rewards was a win to leave Sunderland perched precariously above the bottom three. What it is a welcome for O'Neill from a man who describes himself as a friend. "I am thrilled I've made his job harder," grinned McCarthy.

sports@thenational.ae