MARTIN O’Neill allowed himself only a brief leap of joy after starting his tenure with a triumph, with his second-half reshuffle having made all the difference.
Trailing 1-0 with seven minutes to go, the Ulsterman was enduring the most awful of sporting emotions as apathy and anxiety swept their way through the second-biggest home crowd of the season.
Simon Vukcevic’s 17th-minute header had looked like dishing out a dose of humbug in Sunderland’s last home game before Christmas and there had been precious little to enthuse about before O’Neill tinkered with his troops.
He replaced Connor Wickham with Ji Dong-Won and Jack Colback with James McClean, and it was the latter who got things moving as the 22-year-old Irishman changed the shape of the game.
The Derry City signing’s debut impetus rained crosses down on Paul Robinson and it was a pair of fellow midfielders who made it tell on the scoreboard in a rousing finish.
First to profit from the crowd’s renewed enthusiasm and that of the home side was David Vaughan, whose left-foot lash on 83 minutes left the Blackburn goalkeeper motionless from 25 yards.
Honours shared would have seemed a fair outcome from a game in which Rovers played their part, but there was a tangible expectancy among the home fans as a 93rd-minute free-kick presented itself on the left corner of the box.
Step up Sebastian Larsson to usher in the honeymoon period proper, with the Swede’s sweetly-struck free-kick curling into the left-hand corner with razor-sharp precision.
Momentarily forgetting his previously understated demeanour in the technical area, O’Neill jumped for joy – thrusting both arms in the air as his Black Cats ran to the corner in unison.
Wigan’s comeback at West Brom had ensured his first game began with his players’ heads already below water, plunged into the relegation zone deep end just a point and place above their Lancashire visitors. As is the way for many on Wearside, position is all relative.
Neighbours Newcastle may only be 11 stops away on the Metro, but with the black-and-whites starting the day the same number of positions higher up the Premier League table, reducing that daylight will form a key component of the battle for hearts and minds among the natives.
At least his waistline, birthplace and parentage will not be called into question, although O’Neill admitted in his first programme notes his childhood affinity with Sunderland “affords me nothing more than a little goodwill, particularly in this results-driven business.”
Chairman Ellis Short echoed the theme, insisting: “We are aiming to become a club for whom top-10 finishes are the norm.”
The Texan added: “It was not specifically the Wigan home game which determined we would change our manager,” but that “ultimately we were left to reflect on the fact over a long period of time we have been under-performing.”
The manager’s pre-match dash on to the playing area to take the acclaim of the fans had got the juices going, but excitement soon subsided in a low-key opening.
Craig Gardner’s hamstring injury confirmed his continued absence from the team sheet and there was little in the way of threat with Wickham perched up as the lone striker.
Stéphane Sessègnon, Larsson and Kieran Richardson offered a supporting arrow-head in principle but, with Colback and Vaughan sitting deep early on, it was all horizontal and precious little vertical in passing terms.
If anything it was Blackburn making the better of the early exchanges, with Yakubu keen to push on from his previous week’s four-goal haul.
The Nigerian has long made a trademark of attempting maximum return from minimum exertion, but his battle with returning centre-back Titus Bramble saw them going at it like rutting stags.
John O’Shea wore the captain’s arm-band at right-back with Lee Cattermole suspended, but his side was a goal down and looking ragged when Morten Gamst Pedersen’s hoisted free-kick found Chris Samba unmarked at the back post.
Samba fired across goal for Keiren Westwood to parry, but the Irishman’s intervention could only direct the ball straight into the path of a grateful Vukcevic to nod into the empty net.
That is how it stayed at the break, with Sunderland’s earlier confidence making way for nerves as the occasion looked like getting to them.
In the injury-enforced absences of Gardner and Nicklas Bendtner, it seemed like Sessègnon was shouldering the entire weight of his team’s attacking ambitions on his diminutive shoulders, zipping and jinking around the edge of the box, but unflustered Chris Samba and Scott Dann were not giving much ground.
Richardson, keen to repeat his scoring feat at Wolves, wrapped his left foot round a string of shots from the edge of the box, but a lightweight forward line failed to chisel out any more meaningful scoring opportunities.
It was seagulls and not vultures circling for O’Neill in his grace period with a crowd just shy of 40,000, and with the clock ticking past 74 minutes he made his move.
Putting Ji Dong-Won up front with Sessègnon in a more orthodox 4-4-2, Richardson switched the left for the centre and allowed McClean free rein down the left.
The Irishman made full use of the wide open expanses, whipping in a wonderful ball for Sessègnon in the centre.
Hitting the by-line and troubling Robinson every time, the Derry old boy had the crowd on its feet.
Balls into the box continued to cause problems and the wheels finally clicked into gear as an ineffective clearance set up Vaughan for the drive.
Putting his full body weight into his strike, the former Blackpool man turned to celebrate as his rocket smashed into the net.
There was more to come as injury-time pressure forced handball outside the area. Richardson and Larsson vied for the angle, but it was the Swede who won the day – and the game.
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