SUNDERLAND are hoping to sell the name of the Stadium of Light, and probably just as well.
Quite apart from being stolen from a much more famous stadium, the Monkwearmouth ground is a place of shade as well as light at the moment.
Sunny Saturday was a case in point, a spirited comeback to end the longest losing streak of manager Martin O’Neill’s tenure, yet strangely unsatisfying because the joy was overshadowed by the gloom of a missed opportunity.
It was not without positives. Simon Mignolet was as good as you expect, Stéphane Sessègnon as good as you hope, and James McClean hinted he could get back to being as good as you once remembered.
However, under O’Neill you rarely get the full package. Sunderland’s best performances tend to come in halves rather than 90 minutes and when one department is working well, another always seems to be off-colour.
At the start of the season they were solid but over-reliant on Steve Fletcher’s goals.
Now they have finally found creativity, Fletcher’s predatory instincts have dulled.
As a Fulham team which is especially lightweight on its travels highlighted, there is a fragility defensively.
It has a lot to do with depth. If you rely too much on any individual, no matter how brilliant, to score he will always go through a fallow patch. Fletcher has only scored twice since Christmas.
Leave your squad so light on full-backs (just one owned, one borrowed) and your stand-ins are bound to be exposed from time to time.
Danny Graham’s signing was an attempt to address the over-reliance on Fletcher, but is yet to bear fruit. Other issues are still to be confronted.
When Matt Kilgallon fell ill before kick-off, O’Neill decided to leave himself one short on the bench.
That Sunderland have only opted for six substitutes three times this season is not in itself a big deal.
Had Kilgallon sat on the bench – he would not have got off it – it would only have further highlighted the imbalance.
He, a centre-back who will be released this summer, would have been one of four defenders, alongside the club’s only fit specialist full-back (Phil Bardsley) who cannot get a game and the centre-back (Kader Mangane) not yet considered match-fit enough to start more than a third of the way into his loan.
There would have been no centre-forward, so O’Neill could bring on only the out-of-form McClean to change the game. At least his one match-winner on the field is finally starting to live up to his billing again.
Sessègnon could easily have sulked on the sidelines after being banished there to make space for Graham, but his energy and willingness to run at opponents contrasted with the languid brilliance of Bryan Ruiz and Dimitar Berbatov. From the moment in the 11th minute when John Arne Riise had to dive in to stop Sessègnon weaving into the area, it was clear he was in the mood.
All he had to show for it was a valuable equaliser. The ball had been at Sunderland’s end when Mignolet rushed out to stop Berbatov and Ruiz’s exquisite one-two ending in a match-defining goal.
Jack Colback reacted first, picking out Sessègnon, who carried the ball towards Mark Schwarzer’s goal.
He fortuitously got the ball back from Adam Johnson, via Philippe Senderos’ interception, and finished clinically.
It was, though, only worth a point because Sunderland shipped two soft first-half goals. Ashkan Dejagah’s tumble was theatrical and the delay until Mark Halsey, not showing authority at key moments, pointed to the spot suggested he thought so too. However, the referee saw Craig Gardner flail his leg out and that, rather than whether any contact was sufficient to send the winger flying, seemed to make his mind up.
It was probably not a penalty but, from a defensive point of view, fair punishment for a rash tackle.
Mignolet stood no chance from Berbatov’s calmly stuttering penalty.
Dejagah, at that stage following Sessègnon from wing to wing, produced a second goal after 34 minutes, picking the ball up about 30 yards from the goal Sunderland attacked at a corner and carrying it to within sight of the other.
Mignolet’s palmed interception of the cross presented a tap-in for Sascha Riether, galloping up from right-back.
Although Gardner hammered home his own penalty, after Senderos’ pull on Graham, the Black Cats were unable to overtake Fulham after that headstart.
McClean, booed on by a small number of fans unhappy he can only make headlines now for off-field indiscretions, ensured Sessègnon’s thrust down the wings was not lost when he moved inside.
Eager to dribble and cross, when Johnson’s delivery fell nicely for a right-footed volley his confidence betrayed him, going awkwardly and half-heartedly at it with his left.
Senderos’ contentious hand-ball came from a McClean cross which Fletcher had headed at Hangeland from close range. It was nothing like as clear-cut as the brilliant goalkeeping midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong earlier carried out unpunished from a Johnson centre but, because Sunderland have a penalty-taker with a 100% record in the Premier League and no one posing much danger from direct free-kicks, that was the incident O’Neill complained bitterly about at the end.
Even the what-might-have-beens were a little half-baked.