Martin O'Neill saw two vastly differing visions of the rest of Sunderland's season as his struggling side lost the game but gained some confidence from their second-half performance at Norwich. The Wearsiders fell two behind before getting into their stride; but after man-of-the-match Craig Gardner reduced their deficit in the last minute of the first half, they battered Norwich for the bulk of the second period and with better composure, and better luck, in front of goal they might have pulled off a morale-boosting victory.
"We conceded two very poor goals and it gave us an uphill task," O'Neill said, "but if we show the same spirit we showed in the second half for the rest of the season we'll be fine. If we show the same tension we did in the first half it will be a tough time.
"We were more than tentative in the first half; we were second to the ball, when we had possession we gave it away too easily; in the second half we were terrific. We were as good in the second half as we were poor in the first – we really applied ourselves, played at a better tempo, created things around the penalty area and had some really good chances."
Unhappily for O'Neill, he had to play that second half without his leading striker Steven Fletcher, scorer of half of Sunderland's goals this season, who went into the game with an ankle injury and did not last the course. Substitute Connor Wickham did well, and earned his manager's praise for "a strong centre-forward's performance", but O'Neill conceded that "it might have been nice to have Fletcher's presence in the box when we were creating those chances".
As for his own future as manager, which has been in question, O'Neill neatly side-stepped the issue, choosing instead to focus on the team's position near the foot of the Premier League table. "It's a battle for us," he said. "Until you've got the requisite points on the board you can never think you're not [in a relegation fight]. We spoke about that at half-time. We contributed to our own failings in the first half – we're not good enough to gift goals to sides then turn it around.
"The confidence was restored in the second half, but it won't last – we really need to win a game. I was going to say we were unlucky, but you have to make your own luck."
The Norwich manager, Chris Hughton, declared himself "mostly satisfied" with a fourth successive home league win, and ninth game unbeaten, adding: "I can't fault my players for their effort", despite Sunderland's dominance of the second period.
"We were excellent in the first half, arguably the best half Norwich have played since I've been here – it's very difficult to sustain that," Hughton said. The result, he said, was "a big one" – adding that "every win in this division is a big win; the next game is always a tough one".
With his first-choice goalkeeper John Ruddy undergoing surgery this week on an injury that is expected to keep him out of action for three months, Hughton was pleased with the performance of his understudy, the former Blackburn Rovers keeper Mark Bunn. "He made a couple of big saves, especially right at the end [from a free-kick by Gardner]."