Ricky Sbragia has known worse days on Merseyside. In his time as a lower-league centre-half, he was in the York City team thrashed 7-0 at Anfield in an FA Cup fifth-round replay back in 1985. Across the other side of Stanley Park yesterday, the Glaswegian with the Italian family heritage endured an uncomfortable baptism in the full-time management game as the Sunderland side he has inherited from Roy Keane performed a first-half capitulation at Goodison Park.
Just 24 hours after swapping his caretaker's broom for an 18-month contract, Sbragia sat squirming at pitchside as his Black Cats were twice caught napping by Everton's boy from the Basque Country. Mikel Arteta netted one stunner of a free-kick and then succeeded with a follow-up effort from another. The only mercy for Sunderland's new manager was that his team avoided something as savage as the 7-1 mauling they suffered under Keane's direction at Goodison last season. Further damage was restricted to an 83rd-minute goal by Dan Gosling, the 18-year-old midfielder who made his debut for Everton at Middlesbrough on Boxing Day and got his home introduction off the bench yesterday.
For David Moyes' men it was only their second home win of the season in the Premier League, adding momentum to the European qualification bandwagon that has been rolling along very nicely for them on their travels. For Sbragia, it was an afternoon to forget.
"We knew it was going to be difficult and it proved to be that," he reflected. "In all departments I think Everton were better than us."
They were indeed. Missing Andy Reid and Anton Ferdinand, both victims of a stomach bug, Sunderland started brightly but disappeared into the darker recesses of Goodison after falling behind in the 10th minute. There appeared to be no great danger when Kieran Richardson, filling in at left-back in a reshuffled defence, impeded Leon Osman 30 yards from goal. Arteta, though, smacked the free-kick with considerable venom, breaching the defensive wall and dipping his shot past Marton Fulop. The goalkeeper seemed to be dazzled by the sun as well as the scorching effort but the net result was a chill wind through the visiting ranks.
Sunderland's ponderous play ought to have been punished in the 24th minute when Danny Collins stumbled on the ball and left Marouane Fellaini in possession with a clear sight of goal. Luckily for the Black Cats, before the "Belgian Hair Bear" could despatch a shot, Richardson hoofed clear. The reprieve, however, was temporary.
Three minutes later Arteta lined up another free-kick from a similar range. This time the Sunderland wall blocked his shot but the Spaniard was quick to react with a follow-up volley that found the back of the net via the legs of Teemu Tainio, Sunderland's Finnish midfielder. It might have been worse for Sbragia's men before half-time. With Everton in complete control, Arteta clipped in a peach of a free-kick from the left and Tim Cahill sent a glancing header whistling an inch or two wide of the near post.
In an attempt to turn the tide, Sbragia replaced Steed Malbranque with Carlos Edwards at the start of the second half. It made little difference. The Trinidadian did manage to force a save from Tim Howard, but it was Everton who had the final say, finishing with something of a flourish after coasting through most of the second half. With seven minutes remaining, Joleon Lescott threaded the ball into the heart of the Sunderland box and young Gosling beat Fulop with a fine first-time, side-footed finish.
Goals: Arteta (10) 1-0; Arteta (27) 2-0; Gosling (83) 3-0. Everton (4-5-1): Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Lescott, Baines; Osman (Gosling, 69), Arteta, Neville, Fellaini (Anichebe, 77), Pienaar; Cahill (Jutkiewicz, 85). Substitutes not used: Nash (gk), Van der Meyde, Rodwell, Kissock. Sunderland (4-4-2): Fulop; Bardlsey, Nosworthy, Collins, Richardson; Malbranque (Edwards, h-t), Whitehead, Tainio (Yorke, 74), Murphy; Jones, Cissé (Healy, 74). Substitutes not used: Colgan (gk),Colback, Henderson, Prica. Referee: R Styles (Hampshire). Booked: Everton Jagielka; Sunderland Malbranque, Bardsley, Tainio, Whitehead. Man of the match: Arteta. Attendance: 39,146.