It was easy. That was the most remarkable thing. One month after Martin O’Neill was forced to plead for time, in the midst of a seriously poor run, Sunderland won a game at their leisure.
Since O’Neill bared his soul in far greater detail than he would have liked – “not only am I the best man for the job, I’m actually the only man for the job” – Sunderland have won four Premier League games. His players have answered the questions he did not want to answer. None of those wins, however, have been as comfortable as this. Not even a midweek stroll against Reading, that got the ball rolling back, in December.
What had previously gone wrong in the run to December went right yesterday. Sunderland had a spine, cohesion and tempo. The flair players played, the stoppers stopped. The link man was David Vaughan, who was excellent at the heart of midfield. Vaughan dictated, and from that springboard Steven Fletcher outmuscled the West Ham defence. Stéphane Sessègnon gave sign of his returning spark and, at the back, John O’Shea and Titus Bramble were barely troubled.
When Simon Mignolet was finally called into action in the closing period of the game, making two fine saves from Ricardo Vaz Te and James Tomkins, the game was finished.
Seb Larsson opened the scoring in the 12th minute with an excellent, swerving drive from 25 yards. Adam Johnson struck a second two minutes after the interval and with a quarter of an hour remaining, James McClean drilled in a third. The standard of defending was pathetic, and that was the verdict of Sam Allardyce, the West Ham manager.
Alou Diarra headed to Larsson for the first, Dan Potts tried to chest the ball back to his goalkeeper after Jussi Jaaskelainen had made a fine save to deny McClean, on the edge of his own six yard area (it failed) and the left-back was done again by Sessègnon in the build up for the third. “We didn’t defend correctly,” said Allardyce. “We didn’t have the appetite for defending correctly and nullifying the opposition’s strengths. We never passed the ball as well as we can. It was really an all-round performance that makes life really difficult to accept.
“The level of difference between this and the Manchester United performance is staggering. All round, last week, we were brilliant. This week we were poor in all departments. There was only one player who did right and that was Jussi. The goals weren’t his fault and he made some saves.
“Just look at the second goal. Pathetic. We have a free kick and let the opposition score. Jussi got us out of jail and we messed up the rebound. That sums us up. It was the worst performance of the season.”
The contrast to O’Neill was great. “It was a great win for us,” he said. “We got off to a really good start. We played well for long periods. We played very well. I thought David Vaughan played very well and Sessègnon was terrific. It was hard to pick out anybody in particular. It was great to win. There is always pressure. Anyone in the bottom half of the table has to be looking over their shoulder but it was an important win. It is our fourth in seven Premier League games. In the context of things, it was good to win.”
Sunderland (4-2-3-1): Mignolet; Gardner, Bramble, O’Shea, Colback; Larsson, Vaughan; Johnson (N’Dyai, 84), Sessègnon (McFadden, 89), McClean; Fletcher (Wickham, 79).
West Ham (4-1-4-1): Jaaskelainen; Demel, Collins (Tomkins, 34), Reid, Potts; Diarra; J Cole, Collison (Vaz Te, h-t), Nolan, Jarvis; C Cole (Chamakh, 56).
Referee: Neil Swarbrick
Man of the match: Vaughan (Sunderland)
Match rating: 5/10