West Ham Utd 2 Sunderland 0: Ashton's Hammer blow demolishes 10-man Sunderland

This is Sunderland's return to the top flight also. It will be a much more fleeting affair. "We didn't come for a jolly-up and enjoy it," said their manager Mick McCarthy. "We came up to do better than we have done."

It was little more than 10 months ago that they were scoring a late winner at Upton Park to secure the Championship title. That night they left 21 points ahead of West Ham, who were left fretting about the play-offs. Today the advantage is now a staggering 29 points the other way - a half-century difference that emphasised the polar directions the clubs have travelled in the intervening months.

"I think it's unfair to Sunderland to draw comparisons with us," said West Ham's manager Alan Pardew. "I can only talk of the story we have here." It is turning into some tale. The difference was clear. Pardew has four strikers brimming with threat - and used them all. Sunderland had Kevin Kyle, returning from 18 months of injury, who fluffed two clear chances.

Ashton got his debut; Marlon Harewood was rested. It was not until the latter came on, however, that West Ham had the impetus they needed. "He looked like he had so much more energy and power than anyone else," said Pardew, who admitted his task now was to keep them both, plus Bobby Zamora and Teddy Sheringham - who played a half each - happy. "We will have a problem somewhere down the line," the manager conceded.

That freshness was needed. West Ham looked tired - "not at the races," said Pardew - and struggled to take advantage of Stephen Wright's early dismissal, which left the visitors to play out three-quarters of the match a man down.

The defender, one of four changes, received two bookings and could have few complaints. "Two silly challenges," said McCarthy, who still felt his side deserved to "nick a point". Indeed they came almighty close to bursting West Ham's bubble. Sunderland even fashioned the first half's clearest chance, only for Liam Lawrence to mis-hit his volley, with an unobstructed sight at goal.

Sheringham's arrival added a dimension, prompting his team-mates, but it was Kyle, shooting over, who was presented with the best opportunity. The Scot then headed weakly for Shaka Hislop to save easily.

Another header, from Ashton, provoked a fine, twisting save from Kelvin Davis and then Pardew threw on Harewood. Immediately the pace quickened. He had the ball in the net but was rightly pulled up for offside. Harewood then barrelled his way through again, forcing another save from the goalkeeper. But this time the rebound ran to Ashton, who calmly side-footed in from an acute angle.

It was an impressive finish. Ashton almost added a second when he instantly reached Paul Konchesky's cross, only to find the side-netting. Instead the full-back scored, his speculative effort squirming through Davis.

What a difference a year makes. "They got off to a good start," McCarthy said of West Ham's campaign this season. "And built on it and continued to build. And then went out and bought a £7m striker."