Just as Sunderland’s season seemed set to lurch from bad to farce, Dick Advocaat’s beleaguered and quite possibly embarrassed players found the wherewithal to overcome the eighth best team in League Two, Exeter City, at a bemused Stadium of Light last night.
But manager Advocaat, who fielded a near full-strength team, was an agitated figure on the bench as a chaotic match saw Sunderland lead 2-0 on 16 minutes but drawing 3-3 on 43.
Jermain Defoe scored a hat-trick, and Jack Rodwell twice, before substitute Duncan Watmore made it 5-3. Defoe’s third made it six.
That finally did for Exeter, who in Emmanuel Oyeleke, David Wheeler and Tom McCready had three scorers of their own.
Nine of Sunderland’s XI started the 1-1 draw against Swansea on Saturday. This was not an indication of Sunderland’s desire to repeat the run of the season before last in the League Cup, when they gave Manchester City a game at Wembley. No, this was Advocaat’s way of getting his players to gel, to try to find the sort of rhythm required in the Premier League.
For Exeter it was an occasion, though long-serving manager Paul Tisdale’s scope was inhibited by injuries. That did not stop Exeter from opening brightly, skimming passes to Oyeleke when they could.
But Sunderland’s players were also displaying some appetite. And with their first real move, on 12 minutes, they took the lead. Defoe was the pivot, picking out Patrick van Aanholt overlapping on the left. Defoe’s pass was precise and so was Van Aanholt’s. He found Danny Graham who should have scored from 10 yards. But Troy Brown blocked, only for the rebound to fall to Rodwell who drove in a low shot. Two minutes later, Defoe made it 2-0. Picked out by Rodwell, he spun away from his marker, looped the ball high away from keeper Bobby Olejnik who had advanced off his line, then scurried after it to finish.
Relaxation is a dubious proposition on Wearside. Yet Sebastian Coates indulged in some three minutes on when Danny Butterfield floated a cross in his direction. Rather than head it clear, Coates left it, allowing Oyeleke to nip in a prod a shot past Costel Pantilimon into the far corner.
This was now ding-dong football. Exeter made it 2-2 on 31 minutes when Wheeler rose comfortably above John O’Shea to place a smart header past Pantilimon from Lee Holmes’ cross. But eight minutes on and it was 3-2, Defoe controlling Lee Cattermole’s pass before drilling a low shot into the bottom corner.
That should have been Sunderland’s moment to tighten up, yet two minutes before the interval, McCready made it 3-3 when he met Wheeler’s headed pass and beat Pantilimon with a fierce shot.
The bizarre kept coming. Steven Fletcher replaced Graham at half-time but lasted only a couple of minutes before departing with what looked like concussion. With Sunderland back-tracking, Holmes then flashed a 54th minute header over.
It was still topsy-turvy but rather than 3-4, 10 minutes later it was 4-3. This time it was Exeter who failed to defend a cross, Seb Larsson’s fast corner finding the head of Rodwell seven yards out.
Rodwell’s header was straightforward.
Exeter now began to tire, but they did not give in. But then the energetic Watmore ran on to O’Shea’s pass, Olejnik hesitated badly and Watmore rounded him to restore the two-goal home cushion Sunderland first had on 16 minutes. There was no way back.Reuse content