ADAM Johnson was granted the freedom of the Stadium of Light by the generous Morecambe back four last night. If he continues in this rich vein of form, it will be the freedom of the City of Sunderland before long for Wearside’s newest adopted son.
Even without his foot pressed fully to the pedal, this was a debut to set red and white pulses racing.
Two assists was the headline contribution, but it was the invention and attacking brio which flowed from the boot of Sunderland’s number 21 which lit up a routine League Cup win over lightweight opposition.
It will also enthral the Sunderland manager, who sold owner Ellis Short the vision signing Johnson could transform the Black Cats in an instant from the moribund mediocrity which set in towards the end of last season.
It won’t always be this easy, of course.
Morecambe left-back Robbie Threlfall began his career at Liverpool but that is where the Premier League comparisons end – and Michael Laudrup’s high-flying Swans are sure to pose more questions on Saturday, but it has been a long time since a Sunderland side looked as dangerous as they did last night.
Johnson hit the Shrimps from one side and the irresistible James McClean did the same from the other flank. It worked, and in doing so it also ensured the unhappy tradition of anxious Cup nights was consigned to the memory banks.
In truth, League Cup nights on Wearside have tended to be pretty joyless affairs.
Who could forget Roy Keane once memorably branding a laborious penalty defeat of Northampton the worst night of his storied career, for example?
That might have been stretching the point slightly, but the Black Cats have come a cropper often enough for the locals to regard these sort of ties with scepticism.
Thanks to McClean’s opportunism and the drive of Johnson and skipper Lee Cattermole, this one was never in doubt.
Sunderland were completely dominant in the first half and were ahead within the half-hour when McClean nodded an arrowing Johnson corner kick past Barry Roche.
They might have taken the lead before then if it hadn’t been for Roche’s reflexes which ensured Jack Colback’s fizzing low drive stayed out of the Morecambe net. Again, it was Johnson in the thick of things as he sent over a precise looping ball met with a deft knockdown by the night’s other debutant, striker Steven Fletcher.
It was nice stuff from Sunderland and a clear indication of why Wearside has been so excited about the double capture pulled off on Friday. A few neutral observers might have wondered why Johnson would turn his back on one of the forces in European football to join a team which finished in the bottom half of the Premier League, but there were hints here if you delved deep enough.
For a start, Johnson was undeniably the main man in the eyes of those who had formed long, snaking queues outside the Stadium of Light in the late summer sun. They sung his name before he touched the ball and when he wrapped his deft right boot round a ball to deliver the first of a series of sumptuous crosses, the reception was rapturous.
He will revel in that kind of atmosphere – just as he will feel liberated by the removal of the Italian constraints which prevented him from expressing himself at the Etihad.
For while there are defensive responsibilities to contend with at Sunderland, O’Neill will not want him to worry too much about tracking back when he is the clear focal point of the Black Cats’ attack.
The winger nearly notched on his debut on 40 minutes but, after twisting and turning his way past a slew of Morecambe defenders, he then saw his snap shot parried behind by the over-worked Roche.
The second half began with the familiar sight of skipper Lee Cattermole picking up a booking for a late challenge on Gary McDonald and contained a few reminders of Morecambe’s presence in the opening quarter of an hour.
Sunderland removed their foot from the gas and nearly paid the price when Lewis Alessandra was allowed the time to march on the Black Cats’ penalty area and fire a fizzing drive just wide of Keiren Westwood’s goal.
The sizeable travelling contingent sniffed an opportunity to worm their way back into the contest, but by 70 minutes it was over.
Again Johnson was in the thick of things, but this time it was McClean who deserved the plaudits as he drifted on to the winger’s pass and shimmied past Will Haining before rifling into the net.
McClean nearly had a hat-trick on 72 minutes when he forced a tremendous sprawling save from Roche with a fierce shot from 25 yards – his final contribution on a night when the Wearsiders rejoiced in the contributions of their dove-tailing wingers.
There will be stiffer examinations ahead, no doubt, but for the moment Sunderland supporters can revel in the promise of their new era.