IF Ricky Sbragia does decide to take the plunge and become Sunderland’s permanent manager he will quickly discover it is better to be a lucky manager than a clever one.
Had Jason Roberts not somehow managed to roll the ball wide of an empty net in stoppage time after a long ball had dissected the Black Cats back line, Sunderland’s caretaker boss would have spent the next couple of days reflecting on his first home defeat and the perils of failing to turn possession into chances.
As it is, Roberts had to travel back to Lancashire with a sick feeling in his gut and Sbragia can instead content himself with seven points from a possible nine and a third game unbeaten, which at least maintains some distance from the relegation zone.
It was not the result he or Sunderland’s supporters were looking for, but it was also, as Roy Keane will grimly concur, the sort of game the Wearsiders have frequently ended up losing in the past. Sunderland’s football was slick and pretty, but it constantly lacked the killer pass to unlock Blackburn’s defence with some clever approach play too often let down by an aimless cross, a poorly-struck through ball or Djibril Cissé’s tendency to stray offside at the vital moment.
When the French international did manage to gallop clear in the fourth minute, former England first-choice keeper Paul Robinson got just about enough on the ball to hold him up on the edge of the area.
That set the scene for a frustrating first 45 minutes as the Black Cats, although well in charge of the game in terms of possession and territory, could not find the breakthrough which would have forced Blackburn to come out of their defensive mindset. Sam Allardyce cannot understand why Sunderland failed to approach him before he took the Blackburn post following the departure of Roy Keane. He was out of work, keen on the job and had an excellent track record at Bolton.
But Blackburn’s first-half performance perhaps explains why there was so much hesitation in the Black Cats boardroom. Allardyce may have an impressive CV, but his negative approach to the game has made him unfashionable as clubs are no longer sure his particular brand of football will satisfy those – particularly when money is tight in a recession – seeking entertainment. Football faces a fight to put bums on seats at the moment and there were those on Wearside who simply could not tolerate unattractive football where caution is the default setting.
Rovers rarely got forward in any numbers, their determination not to concede a goal far more prevalent than their desire to score one, as the only time they appeared to get excited offensively was when the big players could come up from the back and a free-kick was swung into the area.
Had Roberts not made such a mess of things in injury-time, Allardyce’s plan would have worked to perfection and his philosophy vindicated, but in his mind and in Blackburn’s position, even a draw was a good result to take back home with them. Although relatively bright in the opening 10 minutes down the wings Sunderland found it difficult to penetrate Blackburn’s banks of four as they lacked both the imagination and guile to feed Jones and Cissé.
Their best chance of the first period fell to the impressive Steed Malbranque, but the winger failed to keep his shot down, before Phil Bardsley’s strike from 25-yards bounced narrowly wide.
Although Robinson had been called upon early on to halt Cissé, the Blackburn keeper did not have a save to make, Jones hooking the ball over the top as he muscled Ryan Nelson out of the way.
Márton Fülöp had rarely touched the ball in the first half, but the Hungarian produced two excellent saves after the break as Blackburn briefly came out of their shells, tipping away Morten Gamst Pedersen’s free-kick and then saving with his feet to deny Keith Andrews in Rovers’ only passing move of note.
Sunderland continued to do the majority of the pressing, but there was still little in terms of goal-scoring opportunities, Cisse missing the only clear sight of goal when his ferocious volley, after Malbranque’s header had hit Nelson, flew over the crossbar from 12 yards.
Boxing Day often feels like an anti-climax after the preceding festivities which just about sums up this affair.