Match Report: West Brom march on to new heights as Martin O’Neill fails again
Sunderland 2 West Bromwich Albion 4: Steve Clarke's side prove far too powerful for Sunderland and seal a fourth win in succession
"And Fortuné has cut back and he's scored!" roared the radio reporter from the Midlands. "It's 4-2! West Bromwich Albion are third in the Premier League!"
He was not the only member of the travelling media at the Stadium of Light to get a bit excited. It felt thoroughly justified. West Brom have not started a season in the top division like this for 59 years. They have not won four top-flight games on the trot since 1980.
When Marc-Antoine Fortuné cut back, in the fifth minute of injury time, and produced the kind of finish that puts teams into the sort of esteemed company which inhabits the head of a division, the besuited Steve Clarke stood in his technical area, turned calmly to his bench and raised his fist. It was as animated as he got all afternoon.
He is keeping his head while others, understandably, are trying not to lose theirs. Such unexpected success can do that to people.
Clarke's manner certainly contrasted to the livewire, track-suited, jack-in-the-box figure five yards to his left. Martin O'Neill kicked every ball exactly where he wanted it to go. Unfortunately his team did not.
If there was a moment when the difference between a team with aspirations and a team fulfilling them was highlighted, it came in the 70th minute. Peter Odemwingie had, moments earlier, darted inside two Sunderland defenders and flashed a shot narrowly wide of Simon Mignolet's post. Shane Long had already scored a goal. But both players were removed from the game, replaced by Fortuné and the Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku, on loan from Chelsea. It was quality replacing quality. It is why West Bromwich Albion woke up this morning third in the Premier League table. Good activity in the transfer market gives such power to a manager's hand. Clarke admitted as much afterwards. He was asked if the start was beyond his wildest dreams.
"I don't dream too much," he said. "I'm a realist. I knew the squad of players I was taking over was a good squad. They had finished mid-table, mid-table, both seasons. We knew we'd added good players to the squad. We were hopeful we could have a good season.
"How do we keep it going? We stay grounded. We stay focused. We use the players wisely. We rotate the squad. We keep the players fresh.
"The players deserve every credit for what they get. In this league it is a big challenge to win four on the trot, even for the big teams. We have managed to do that and it tells everyone how good we are as a team. It would have been a travesty if we had not won it."
His team were ahead by the time he made the double substitution. Zoltan Gera scored a fine first after 30 minutes, bending a left-footed shot beyond Mignolet's outstretched arm after a mistake by Adam Johnson. The error was the goalkeeper's in the 44th minute, badly fumbling a Chris Brunt through-ball, allowing Long to tap into an empty net. Sunderland's first lifeline did not come until the 73rd minute, when Craig Gardner's 25-yard free-kick deflected off Fortuné, standing in the wall, to fly into the West Brom goal.
By then Lee Cattermole (knee) and John O'Shea (calf) had gone off. O'Shea will be out for at least a fortnight. With nine minutes remaining, Liam Ridgewell went down easily in the Sunderland penalty area under a needless challenge from Johnson. Mike Dean, unsighted, gave a penalty. O'Neill called it a non-penalty. Lukaku scored the non-penalty. At 3-1 Sunderland found a second lifeline, three minutes from the end of normal time, when Stéphane Sessègnon scored from close range after a Boaz Myhill save from Steven Fletcher. Under pressure, West Brom broke, their play was again incisive, and Fortuné put them third with their fourth.
"It was tough to take," said O'Neill. "We put in a big effort and there was a penalty that never was. I've come here and I try to give honest assessments. There was a lot to take out of the game. We looked like we can get a goal again now. That is very encouraging. It is a big game on Tuesday night against QPR."
Sunderland (4-4-1-1): Mignolet; Bardsley, O'Shea (McClean, h-t), Cuéllar, Rose; Larsson, Colback (Saha, 73), Cattermole (Gardner, 35), Johnson; Sessègnon; Fletcher.
West Bromwich (4-2-3-1): Myhill; Jones, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Morrison (Tamas, 90), Yacob; Odemwingie (Lukaku, 70), Gera, Brunt; Long (Fortuné, 70).
Referee: Mike Dean.
Man of the match: Brunt (West Brom)
Match rating: 5/10
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