Matthew Upson left Wearside with a sore head but a big smile yesterday. Upson and his centre-half partner James Collins produced header after header after header after header – and then some more headers – as West Ham United butted their way to a first win in eight games and two months to remind their suffering followers of the taste of victory.
The stress caused by their decline on the pitch and the implosion off it was alleviated – albeit temporarily – and the pressure eased on the new manager Gianfranco Zola. "I told him if I had to give him a mark from one to 10, I couldn't," Zola said of Upson afterwards, "I'd give him 11. He was outstanding. I don't think he and Collins lost one challenge, absolutely perfect. He [Upson] is a wonderful professional. He deserves to be in the national team and I'm telling you again he is not for sale."
Zola expressed his "relief for the players" after Valon Behrami scored his first West Ham goal since his £5m transfer from Lazio. That was in the 20th minute and the visitors had only one other chance. It too fell to Behrami but from four yards he hit the bar after Craig Bellamy had seized upon an error by the former Hammer Anton Ferdinand.
Aside from that it was all Sunderland but, despite inventive play from Andy Reid and Kieran Richardson, long before the end the home pattern became too long-ball and too predictable. This suited Upson's aerial prowess and meant that Sunderland's approach was blunted time and again. Djibril Cissé nevertheless managed to squander three good openings and, as is the way this season, the game came complete with the obligatory refereeing controversy. These involved Collins.
The referee, Mike Dean, either failed to notice or failed to recognise the seriousness of two first-half fouls by Collins, first on Kenwyne Jones and then on Cissé. Had Dean awarded either, Sunderland would have been given a penalty in the first instance and a red card for Collins would have been shown on the second.
They were match-defining non-decisions and yet their significance in the 34th minute felt considerably greater than by the end and the Sunderland manager, Roy Keane, merely said: "We feel they were penalties but that always comes across as sour grapes when you lose."
Keane was as aggrieved by his players’ defending on Behrami’s goal as he was with the referee. After Julien Faubert’s free-kick was nodded to the edge of the area by Nyron Nosworthy, no one closed down the space in front of Behrami swiftly enough. The Swiss midfielder’s strike clipped Jones as it flew in.
“We can’t seem to string two wins together and sometimes that feels like it’s in the mentality and the fibre of the club,” Keane said. It was a third home defeat in a row and a fifth in the last six matches. It came in front of Sunderland’s lowest league crowd of a hiccupping season.
Goals: Behrami (2) 0-1.
Sunderland (4-4-2) Fulop (gk); Bardsley, Nosworthy, Ferdinand, D Collins; Malbranque (Edwards, 66), Whitehead, Richardson, Reid (Murphy, 66); Cissé, Jones (Diouf, 81). Substitutes not used: Colgan, Tainio, Colback, Henderson.
West Ham United (4-4-2) Green; Neill, J Collins, Upson, Ilunga; Faubert (Boa Morte, 76) Parker, Bowyer (Mullins, 62), Behrami; Cole, Bellamy (Di Michele, 88). Substitutes not used: Lastuvka (gk), Davenport, Collison, Sears.
Referee: M Dean (Wirral).
Booked: Sunderland: Reid, Bardsley. West Ham: Bowyer.
Man of the match: Upson.
Attendance: 35,222.Reuse content