John Arne Riise was a notable absentee from the visitors' starting line-up on Wearside yesterday. "He gave birth to a son this morning," the Fulham manager Martin Jol reported afterwards, adding hastily, "with his wife." On the pitch there was no end to the pregnant pause and the hard labour.
Sunderland squandered a hatful of first-half chances, missing gilt-edged opportunity to kick start their season. They finished to a hail of boos, and to isolated chants of "Bruce Out", after a stagnant second-half. Steve Bruce's side have won only two of 15 home games in League and cup since New Year's Day. Ultimately, they were denied in injury time when a deflected Stéphane Sessègnon shot drew a fine reflex save from the 39-year-old Mark Schwarzer. "They could have won it at the end but I didn't think they were good enough," Jol reflected.
There might have been a goal at either end in the opening 10 minutes. First Moussa Dembélé jinked past Lee Cattermole and Michael Turner on the right edge of the Sunderland penalty area and unleashed a left-foot drive that Keiren Westwood saved with his chest. Then Sessègnon teed up Kieran Richardson for a header that rattled off the angle of bar and post.
Sunderland fashioned another couple of clear openings orchestrated by Nicklas Bendtner. First the roving Danish forward dropped deep into midfield to thread a pass that put Jack Colback through on the right side of the Fulham area only for the red-haired midfielder to square a pass into the arms of Schwarzer.
Then Bendtner supplied Ahmed Elmohamady for a cross from the right that culminated in Colback turning smartly and smacking a left foot drive against the bar.
Schwarzer also saved a header from Sessègnon and Sunderland might have counted the cost as Fulham built up an attacking head of steam late in the first half but Cattermole came to the rescue, nodding a header from Dickson Etuhu off the line.
It was Fulham who started the brighter in the second-half, left-back Chris Baird firing a stinging grass-cutter that had the diving Westwood at full stretch to save.
Roused by the home crowd, the Black Cats did get their claws into the visitors but only fleetingly, Baird nodding a Sessègnon header out of the goalmouth just after the hour. Not long after came the wincing sight of Michael Turner, the Sunderland central defender, having stitches applied to a head wound in full view of the audience at pitch-side. The contest itself never lacked needle. Indeed, the combative Etuhu was fortunate to avoid a second yellow card on his return to the Stadium of Light.
The match continued to lack a decisive touch, though. Five minutes from the end Clint Dempsey fired a shot across the home goal. Then, in injury time, Schwarzer brilliantly saved a deflected Sessègnon shot with his legs.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Westwood; O'Shea, Turner, Brown, Bardsley; Elmohamady (Noble, 88), Cattermole, Colback (Ji, 73), Richardson; Sessègnon, Bendtner.
Fulham (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Hughes, Senderos, Hangeland, Baird; Duff (Ruiz, 86), Murphy, Etuhu, Dempsey (Briggs, 90); Dembélé; Zamora (Johnson, 68).
Referee Anthony Taylor.
Man of the match Westwood (Sunderland).
Match rating 5/10.