McClean's decisive strike rewards faith of O'Neill

Stoke City 0 Sunderland 1

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The Independent Football

Even the inhibiting effects of an unremitting snowstorm could not put the skids under Sunderland's extraordinary revival under Martin O'Neill. Stoke felt they were hard done by after a red card for the defender Robert Huth obliged them to play the whole of the second half with 10 men but Sunderland have acquired such momentum since O'Neill took charge that even playing against 11 another three points would hardly have been at odds with the form book.

Huth's sending off infuriated Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, who accused David Meyler, the Sunderland player on the receiving end of the centre-back's lunging, two-footed challenge in the closing minutes of the first half of an exaggerated reaction.

"My first reaction was that it was a reckless tackle but when you look at the replay there is no contact and Robert is trying to pull out," Pulis said. "His feet are on the floor, scraping the snow.

"What disappoints me is the reaction of the player [Meyler]. If there is no contact, why is he rolling around on the floor? We will certainly appeal against it.

"It is something that is happening more and more. Players are going down with the intention of getting someone booked or sent off.

"I think it is time Gordon Taylor and the PFA took a look at this and told players that if we are not careful we will take all contact out of the game, and we don't want that."

Given the current climate, however,it would have been difficult for referee Martin Atkinson not to interpret Huth's action – particularly in the light of the conditions – as one in which he had no control of the consequences and in which Meyler could have suffered serious injury. "I have not seen the replay but my immediate reaction was that it would be a red card," O'Neill said.

The advantage clearly made it easier for Sunderland, whose win was their seventh in 10 matches since O'Neill was confirmed as the successor to Steve Bruce – sacked at the end of November with the Wearsiders 16th in the Premier League with two wins from 13 matches.

It was achieved despite the absence of Wes Brown, David Vaughan, Lee Cattermole and Nicklas Bendtner. O'Neill was able also to leave his deadline day loan signings, Wayne Bridge and Sotirios Kyrgiakos, on the bench.

With the benefit of blankets and padded coats, they looked in the best place on an afternoon as inhospitable as could be imagined. Snow driven by a biting wind made decent football almost impossible and but for the use of blue paint to identify the lines the surface would not have been recognisable as a football pitch. When Jermaine Pennant was sacrificed for an extra defender after Huth's red card you felt relieved on his behalf.

Jack Colback, in the centre of Sunderland's midfield, had a claim to be man of the match but it was another winger who had the decisive influence. James McClean, whose surge to prominence has been a direct consequence of O'Neill's arrival, continued to reward his new manager's trust in him by scoring his third goal in that time with 30 minutes remaining.

Receiving the ball from Stéphane Sessègnon on the left, he went past full-back Andy Wilkinson and wrong-footed Jonathan Woodgate, his slalom run taking him into the heart of the Stoke penalty area, where he was cool enough to slide the ball without fuss past goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen.

The moment emphasised why O'Neill believes the 22-year-old, who cost only £350,000 when he was signed from Derry City, should be in the Republic of Ireland's Euro 2012 squad. He has played in all 10 of O'Neill's Premier League games, having had to wait for Bruce's departure to be given his full debut at that level.

"Given how difficult it was to play – and I thought it was borderline to be called off in the last 20 minutes – he took the goal really well and to see him blossom has been a big plus," O'Neill said. "He has performed brilliantly for us."

Stoke (4-4-2): Sorensen; Wilkinson (Shotton, 85), Shawcross, Huth, Wilson; Pennant (Woodgate, 45), Delap, Whelan, Walters; Crouch, Jerome (Fuller, 40).

Sunderland (4-2-4-1): Mignolet; Bardsley, O'Shea, Turner, Richardson; Meyler (Elmohamody, 85); Larsson, Gardner, Colback, McClean; Sessegnon.

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Man of the match: Colback (Sunderland)

Match rating: 4/10

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