STEVE Bruce administered some shock therapy last week but the depressing truth is that he is no closer to finding a cure for Sunderland’s acute case of travel sickness.
A second half improvement meant this wasn’t quite a reprise of the Wigan horror show, but that will hardly take the edge off the gnawing sense of frustration eating away at the Sunderland manager this morning.
Battered and beaten up by Bobby Zamora, days like this were meant to be a thing of the past but their inability to start away games with any kind of conviction is harming Sunderland’s cause.
Those points snatched from the big four were meant to be a sign that the Black Cats had arrived as a Premier League force. Instead, thanks to this alarming run of away form, they are the points just about keeping them in the Premier League.
After the promise of autumn the reality of winter has arrived like a blast from the Arctic. Problems are springing up all over the field for Bruce. Defensively, the constant and unseemly shuffling of personnel is a worrying sign of the lack of conviction in Sunderland’s back four. Even the expensively acquired Michael Turner – flawless until now – appears to be suffering from the instability and how Bruce could now do with a reliable and experienced head like Danny Collins to plug the problem left-back slot.
In midfield, they are missing Lee Cattermole dreadfully. Lorik Cana continues to patrol that area with grace and determination but he is the only one maintaining the high water mark set against Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal.
Returning to his old stomping ground, Steed Malbranque was anonymous, the second time in eight days that damning assessment of his contribution could be delivered without complaint.
Even up front, an area of strength in the early weeks, the goals have dried up. The reunion of Darren Bent and Kenwyne Jones was given top billing before the game but after conspiring to miss three gilt-edged chances, they were equally culpable on a depressing day.
Bruce switched Sunderland’s formation and personnel for the trip to West London but what he really wanted was a change of mentality from his Black Cats – for them to put an end to the timidity which had typified too many of their performances away from Wearside.
The early portents were promising. Cana steamed into a loose ball with Paul Konchesky on the edge of the box and emerged with the ball before deftly teeing up Malbranque who angled a shot that was too weak to trouble Mark Schwarzer.
That challenge prompted roars of approval among the sizeable Sunderland following, but hopes turned to dust within minutes as the half played out with depressing familiarity.
Insipid Sunderland barely had a kick, surrendering the midfield ascendancy with worrying ease to a Fulham side bristling with attacking brio and the sort of confidence that seems to drains out of red and white veins when they board the team bus in Wearside.
Clint Dempsey was Fulham’s creator-in-chief, posting an early reminder to English observers of his pedigree with a performance of rare offensive promise.
He seemed to be at the heart of all of the home side’s good work, lurking profitably between the visitor’s midfield and back four while firing off long range howitzers seemingly at will. But it was a familiar nemesis who unpicked Sunderland’s flimsy resistance on seven minutes. Fulham worked the ball efficiently to Damien Duff and to a crescendo of boos from the travelling supporters he delivered a precise cross for Zamora to head the hosts into the lead.
The hulking striker was clinical from close range but again fingers had to be pointed at Sunderland’s back four. Phil Bardsley was brushed off the ball far too easily and Turner – spoken of as an England prospect a few short weeks ago – was caught out of position as Zamora nodded past Márton Fülöp.
Bruce looked on grimly and his mood barely improved for the following 40 minutes. Sunderland’s reply was virtually non-existent – a couple of half chances and hopeful crosses that spun away from the isolated pairing of Jones and Bent.
All the action was at the other end, where Zamora was cuffing Sunderland’s back four with alarming regularity. He is hardly one of the Premier League’s blue riband forwards but he simply bounced Sunderland’s defenders off him as he created a plethora of space and openings for his team-mates.
Fulham ended the half in the ascendancy as the irresistible Zamora clattered a header against the crossbar before flicking on for Nevland to wriggle through a sea of red and white shirts and fire into Fülöp’s chest. The need for improvement was stark and after a half-time tongue lashing from Bruce, Sunderland improved dramatically as an attacking force in the second half.
The reunion of Sunderland’s first-choice strike pairing was supposed to increase their potency and belatedly the threat arrived on the 55-minute mark. Jones latched on to Konchesky’s casual back pass but was denied by Schwarzer, who was alert enough to the danger to smother at his feet.
It offered Sunderland encouragement and suddenly Bent sprang into life. He connected forcefully with a Richardson cross to volley wide before smacking a low Reid pass high into the stands.
Sunderland needed to kick on but wily Roy Hodgson sensed the shift in momentum and tightened things up, contracting the space in a congested midfield. Chances were at a premium and even the introduction of attack-minded substitutes Fraizer Campbell and Bolo Zenden couldn’t help the visitors end their long wait for an away win.
The late replacement had one of the better chances of the closing stages but his fiercely struck low drive was well held by Schwarzer as Sunderland struggled to make a breakthrough.