RICKY Sbragia turned down a king’s ransom to keep him at the Stadium of Light, and last night proved what he had maintained all along – Kenwyne Jones’ value to Sunderland can’t be quantified by millions in the bank.
It didn’t take a £15m striker to stroke home a routine 55th-minute opportunity provided by the positive work of Andy Reid and Djibril Cissé, but it provided a neat vindication of a robust rebuttal of Spurs’ predatory advances on Jones.
Having signed up for the Sunderland project for another four years in the morning, he provided the lion’s share of what limited invention was on show as his side squeezed by stubborn Fulham.
Harry Redknapp’s January charm offensive might have ruined his chances of a post-football career in diplomacy, but his judgement can’t be faulted. The man he has chased aggressively for most of the month did what Liverpool and Aston Villa’s multi-million pound attacks couldn’t manage and penetrated Fulham’s back four – teasing their highly-rated defender Brede Hanedland on a couple of occasions before prodding home from close range to settle a low-quality contest.
To be fair, it was far from Jones’ best performance in a red and white shirt, with Cisse the livelier of the front two.
It was far from Sunderland’s best display either – but having a player as occasionally inspirational and devastatingly prolific as him provided a victory that could ultimately prove the difference between staying up in comfort and fighting a survival battle down to the wire.
Sbragia reckons Premier League survival will require five more home victories and while this was hardly the barnstorming fillip to send his team to St James’s Park on a high, they showed admirable spirit to overcome the recent self-doubt.
Roy Hodgson’s side have chiselled some notable clean sheets this season, it was easy to see why as Sunderland struggled to penetrate their well-drilled midfield.
The precision of Andy Reid had been preferred to the energy of Carlos Edwards on the left but his radar was off-kilter for the first half as he gave away possession with far too much regularity.
It set the tone for a wasteful first 45 minutes from Sunderland, who needed anything but a continuation of their FA Cup travails against Blackburn to ease some frayed nerves around the Stadium of Light. Teemu Tianio and Dean Whitehead provided industry but not invention, and it fell to their marquee front pairing to carve out their own chances.
In what has become a depressingly familiar routine, Jones clicked with Cissé only fitfully for the 45 minutes. But when they did link up, they provided the most likely route for an opening goal.
Cissé illustrated his tremendous pace by racing through a sea of yellow shirts in the first 10 minutes but his venomous shot was more powerful than it was accurate, brushing the side netting.
Jones’ burst of speed then forged a route to goal only blocked by Schwarzer’s low stop. The rebound dropped invitingly for Cissé but his shot was also parried by the alert former Middlesbrough keeper.
Fulham posed a threat too. Simon Davies, after neat interplay between Andrew Johnson and Bobby Zamora, rifled a low shot that wasn’t far wide and Clint Dempsey worried Marton Fülöp with a volleyed attempt that curved narrowly past his right-hand post.
Sunderland desperately needed an improvement in the second half; it arrived courtesy of the midfielder who had been so disappointing in the first. Reid, perhaps galvanised by a few choice half-time words, was much brighter after the break and it was his determination that crafted Sunderland’s crucial opening goal.
Shrugging off robust challenges from Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu, he poked a clever ball to Cissé, whose shot was parried by Schwarzer into Jones’ path.
Suddenly required to drive forward, Fulham stuttered. A sky high effort from Johnson did not trouble Fülöp, and the conservative formation set up by Hodgson did not accommodate the requisite width to trouble the Black Cats’ back four with any conviction.
When they did get beyond the Sunderland defence, they were let down by a woeful close-range finish from Davies, who found himself with an open goal from a couple of yards after Dempsey’s knock-back.
Sunderland nearly delivered instant punishment for their profligacy, but Steed Malbranque found Schwarzer’s reflexes every bit as sharp as during his time on Teesside.
After Phil Bardsley galloped down the wing and delivered a neat pass to Cissé, the striker’s shot ricocheted off Brede Handeland into the path of the French winger. He looked to have done enough to secure a second, killer goal but his shot was superbly kept out by the Fulham goalkeeper.
That ensured a conclusion that became more frayed as the minutes wore on – but Sunderland held firm. There was even a solid quarter of an hour cameo from Paul McShane that went some way to rehabilitating his reputation in they eyes of the Black Cats faithful.