Sunderland 0 Birmingham City 1: Bruce's inspired switches leave McCarthy blue

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The Independent Football

Sooner or later, it seems Sunderland will have to face the facts: the Premier League is not the place for them. They can lose to Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool and no one is going to think the worse of them, but if their prospects of survival are to retain any credibility they must beat the sides close to them. Yet even against opponents immediately above them at the bottom of the table they were found wanting.

The substitute Julian Gray's 68th-minute goal was enough to give the points to Steve Bruce's team, who themselves had been seeking to avoid a sixth consecutive defeat. Sunderland's list of statistical horrors now includes 11 defeats in 14 games this season, 26 in their last 29 in the Premiership. Mick McCarthy's position has seemed water-tight until now, but with his own record as a Premier League manager now a horrible five points from a possible 69 he must wonder what his future holds.

Birmingham, with eight defeats from 13 games in the top flight this season, are hardly in a position to crow but Bruce hopes this result may prove a turning point. Whereas Sunderland's place in the table appears to be an accurate reflection of their ability, Bruce has some justification for believing Birmingham's to be false.

Too many key players have been long-term absentees, he says, for conclusions to be drawn from this season's form. Dunn, of whom he had such high hopes when he found £5.5 million for him in 2003, was making only his 31st appearance for Birmingham in two and a half years and his first start since Boxing Day last year.

The former England Under-21 captain was one of three long-term casualties returning to action yesterday, along with Damien Johnson and Mario Melchiot. Muzzy Izzet, whom Bruce judged the "best player on the pitch", was making his second start in a year.

"There is only Mikael Forssell out now and it was because I have people available that I could have a strong bench," he said, acknowledging that his three substitutes - Gray, Jermaine Pennant and Walter Pandiani - had made the difference. It was Pandiani's header from Pennant's cross that led to Gray's goal.

"Psychologically, winning here today is a major boost for us," Bruce added. "Had we lost we would have been bottom and we are better than that." Sunderland were awful. A fine save late in the game by Nico Vaesen from Liam Lawrence arguably denied them an equaliser, but it was only their second worthwhile goal attempt of the match.

The goal that at last gave an icy afternoon a lift came when Pennant, on for Neil Kilkenny, crossed from the right and Pandiani, who had replaced Jiri Jarosik, aimed a near-post header towards the far corner. Ben Alnwick, the Sunderland goalkeeper, kept out that one, but could do nothing about Gray's close-range follow-up. Gray, on for the tiring Dunn, had been on the field barely three minutes.

Given that Pandiani had drawn a fine save already from Alnwick as Birmingham made the more meaningful progress in the second half, it was an advantage not misplaced. Sunderland, who have now gone 18 games without a home win in the Premier League, are facing a bleak winter.