It is not often you will get a tip of the hat from Sunderland in the direction of Newcastle but Mick McCarthy's side are in debt to Sir Bobby Robson and his men for the way they ran the super-fit West Bromwich into the ground in the Carling Cup in midweek.
Albion's ambitions of following up that fine extra-time success with victory over another big beast from the north-east never really got off the ground. Strangely, after seeing his side fail to score and deposed as Division One leaders by Wigan, the West Brom manager, Gary Megson, pronounced himself "really pleased."
He explained: "Most teams would have lost that game to a very good Sunderland side. After that midweek game we were just running on empty." Certainly, Sunderland deserved to have won, but the art of scoring seems to be the one thing McCarthy has not yet inculcated in a team whose rebuilding is otherwise progressing impressively.
They have now managed two goals in six games, yet three or four more would not have been unkind to Albion. That they came up with yet another blank scoreline was down in part to profligacy, but mainly to the enduring excellence of West Brom's goalkeeper, Russell Hoult.
McCarthy summed it up as "a bit of a 0-0 hammering," and patted his players, even the strikers, on the back. "I thought we were terrific," he said, and he was correct. Their game was lifted to the levels of excellence by Stewart Downing, a 19-year-old left-sided midfielder on a month's loan from Middlesbrough because he has been forced out at the Riverside by Boudewijn Zenden. "I knew what he was capable of and he produced it," said McCarthy.
The extent to which West Bromwich Albion would labour was early evident in the difficulty they had in repelling two free kicks by John Oster, who ran midfield like a fiefdom while Jeff Whitley held the ramparts in front of Sunderland's back line, not that they needed to do much defending. Albion conceded 11 free kicks and collected three bookings in a first half of increasing desperation.
Fortunately, it did not descend into nastiness, though Bernt Haas, frustrated by the regularity with which he was being left in Downing's slipstream, floored the youngster while the referee's back was turned.
Not even that put a crimp in a memorable debut for Downing, whose speed, control, accuracy on the cross and fierce shooting stood out even in this Sunderland side. Sean Gregan was an early saviour for his team, clearing off the line with Hoult, for once, beaten by a Marcus Stewart shot on the turn, and Thomas Gaardsoe was also on hand to hack clear when Hoult failed to hang on to Downing's low, angled shot.
Albion were not helped by losing striker Lee Hughes to a groin strain at the interval and though they resumed brightly, with Whitley clearing Gaardsoe's header away from danger, Sunderland instantly picked up the tempo. Shots and headers rained in on Hoult, who needed treatment after Stewart clattered into him.
The same player came close to beating him, knocking the ball past the keeper but as it bounced towards the untenanted net Haas hastened back to boot away. One save, from Kevin Kyle's header after more good work by Downing, was of the highest class. And when it seemed, finally, that Downing, the one who deserved to win this match, would be the one to do so, Hoult somehow finger-tipped his low cross-shot onto an upright. McCarthy should hasten to extend that loan period as far beyond a month as he can manage.
West Bromwich Albion 0 Sunderland 0
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