Football: Sunderland lack that premier passion

Sunderland 2 Portsmouth 1
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By Simon Turnbull

Sunderland 2 Portsmouth 1

THE choreography was not what it could have been in Wearside's Stadium of Light on Saturday. The pre-match ballet, performed to the strains of the unlikely anthem Sunderland have adopted in their new home, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, went to plan - or so, at any rate, it seemed to 38,000 pairs of untrained eyes. When it came to the working man's ballet, however, Sunderland got their metaphorical tights in a twist.

It might not have given such cause for concern had the same thing not happened the previous week, when Peter Reid's team were made to dance to Birmingham City's tune. Sunderland were once again as plodding and predictable as their opponents were sharp and inventive.

By a happy circumstance of good fortune at both ends of the field - Portsmouth's profligacy and Allan Johnston's late winner - they got away with the three points. Flaws, however, are starting to appear in their promotion credentials.

The most basic is the rigid formation to which Reid has adhered. Like Trevor Francis before him, Alan Ball sussed that the way to stop Sunderland is to simply outnumber them in midfield, nullifying their playmaker, Lee Clark, and pour at pace through the gaps that appear.

What Reid so clearly requires, much more than prime time television stardom and cultural diversions, is a variation upon the theme which put Sunderland in the promotion picture. If he does not possess the personnel - and so, from recent weeks, it would seem - he needs to speculate to accumulate the set of options that will be vital in the final push for the Premiership.

Just as last season, when they failed to hold on to their firstclass status for wont of a Clark or a goalscorer, Sunderland are in danger of being caught short again. Not that Reid would admit as much on Saturday night.

He was simply relieved to have salvaged three points from a game his stuttering side could easily have lost. Asked whether the performance was good enough, he replied: "Ask me again in May, I'll tell you then."

By then, Sunderland could be heading for the lottery of the play-offs as the third men of the First Division's promotion race - and Portsmouth, on Saturday's evidence, should be secure for another season. In Alan McLoughlin, who in his Swindon days undid Sunderland in the 1990 play-off final, they had the midfield controller.

Portsmouth's only goal, equalising Kevin Phillips' 15th minute header, came courtesy of an edge of the box cock up in the choreography department. Lionel Perez and Darren Holloway left Paul Hall with a gift.

But Johnston's finely-struck winner, with five minutes remaining, left Pompey point-less for the first time since Ball's return to Fratton Park six weeks ago. "I've got to be pleased," he said, "because neutrals would have looked at that game and said there wasn't a thumbnail's difference between the teams."

This neutral would beg to differ. Portsmouth should have won hands down.

Goals: Phillips (16) 1-0; Hall (72) 1-1; Johnston (85) 2-1.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Perez; Makin, Holloway, Williams, Gray; Rae (Summerbee, 78), Ball, Clark, Johnston; Phillips, Quinn (Dichio, 72). Substitute not used: Ord.

Portsmouth (4-5-1): Flahavan; Pethick, Awford, Whitbread, Robinson; Thompson, McLoughlin, Waterman, Hillier, Vlahos (Aloisi, 33); Hall. Substitutes not used: Allen, Carter.

Referee: D Pugh (Wirral).

Man of the match: McLoughlin.

Attendance: 38,134.