McCarthy's driving ambition puts Sunderland back on road to Cardiff

Sunderland 3 Sheffield United 0
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The Independent Online

Maybe it is Mick McCarthy's does-exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin style of management, but Sunderland's progress has been completely unhindered by their failure to reach the FA Cup final.

Maybe it is Mick McCarthy's does-exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin style of management, but Sunderland's progress has been completely unhindered by their failure to reach the FA Cup final.

Since the numbing defeat by Millwall that deprived them not only of a final but of a place in European football for the first time since Bob Stokoe ran Roker Park, Sunderland have added two more victories to the three straight wins that preceded their journey to Old Trafford.

They may not secure automatic promotion but the last few months have finally seen Sunderland cast off the skin of failure and pessimism that has gripped the club since Peter Reid's regime began to drift into decline. "Apathy," McCarthy called it. Sunderland have not lost a League match on Wearside in eight months and sometimes the impetus provided by Sean Thornton, John Oster and Julio Arca, players bought by Reid but who seldom performed for him, has been irresistible.

Yesterday, they outplayed and outpassed a Sheffield United side, which in contrast to Sunderland has never come to terms with an FA Cup defeat. Since losing the quarter-final at the Stadium of Light a month ago, United have won just two matches and lost much of the plot. The way in which Kevin Kyle was allowed to run through to score Sunderland's third in stoppage time spoke of a deeply weary team. Their failure in last season's play-off final may be finally sinking home.

Sunderland are on course to share United's fate of an FA Cup semi-final and a play-off final and Neil Warnock thinks winning in Cardiff might be more of a task for them than reaching the Millennium Stadium. "Nobody will want to draw Sunderland and they'll be strong over two legs but I think one-off games might be a problem for them," reflected the United manager. "You saw that at Old Trafford when Millwall had three or four players who were slightly better."

Although you would not have known it from watching McCarthy, who spent the match prowling the touchline mouthing obscenities at the referee, who allowed a string of wild tackles from both teams to go unpunished, Sunderland were seldom under threat. As they had done in the FA Cup quarter-final, they took the lead early on through Tommy Smith and did not look like losing it.

The goal was wonderfully worked. Jason McAteer thundered down the right flank, his muscles pumping as he shook off Mark Rankine's challenge, before sending over a cross which Smith clipped past Paddy Kenny.

As the pace of Sheffield United's slide has steepened, Warnock has taken to ever more frantic reshuffles. There were four changes in personnel from the side that had lost to Nottingham Forest and he promised more for Monday's game with an already-relegated Wimbledon.

He had just taken off his captain, Robert Page, whom he thought should have cut out McAteer's cross for the first goal when Thornton's corner exposed a lack of leadership in the centre of United's defence. Gary Breen was allowed to head comfortably into the centre of the net, leading Warnock to mutter something about drafting in his missus to play.

Sunderland (4-4-2) Myhre, Williams, Breen, Babb, Arca, Thornton, McAteer (Thirlwell 90), Robinson, Oster (Kyle 61), Byfield, Smith (Stewart 86). Substitutes not used: Alnwick (gk), Bjorklund.

Sheffield United: (4-4-2) Kenny, Jagielka, Page (Sestanovich 61), Morgan, Kozluk, Francis, Tonge, Rankine, Wright (Lester 66), Shaw, Gray (Allison 66). Substitutes not used: McLeod, Montgomery.

Referee: M Pike (Cumbria).

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