IT looked like being one of the most difficult away trips of the season.
IT looked like being one of the most difficult away trips of the season. The pre-match weather forecasts predicted a journey only Sir Ranulph Fiennes would enjoy.
In the end, the snow was a powder puff and with a little caution and a touch of luck, it was safely negotiated. Had there been more, things could have got hairy for the 4,800 travelling fans.
It was much the same when it came to Wigan Athletic as an attacking force.
After the match Roberto Martinez talked about “actions” – moves leading to scoring opportunities as opposed to chances themselves. The Latics had twice as many as Sunderland, yet still only contributed one goal to an entertaining game.
It will always be the case with Martinez’s pleasant but unthreatening team for as long as they do not have an action man like Steven Fletcher.
Now more dangerous from elsewhere, the Black Cats are less dependent on Fletcher than when the sides last met in September (no prizes for guessing who scored the only goal). Five wins in eight league games have suddenly made them look upwardly mobile.
Nevertheless, they would be in a lot of trouble without him. It is why they are so interested in signing Swansea City’s Danny Graham.
With a goalscorer you do not have to outplay opponents to beat them. Wigan have to play much better – even when their star striker, Arouna Koné, is not at the African Cup of Nations.
Fletcher was so clinical that for the second half Sunderland’s back nine were able to play defence versus attack.
It almost backfired. Wigan twice struck the woodwork and Simon Mignolet had to make an outstanding save from Shaun Maloney.
With his side 3-2 down, Martin O’Neill began frantically waving them higher up the pitch at least ten minutes too late. Even before the goal, the away end had been demanding “Attack, attack, attack!”
But with Wigan playing two at the back by the end, Sunderland had chances on the break to make O’Neill’s typically cautious approach look even better. As it was, the result vindicated him.
Wigan left with the points for artistic merit, the Black Cats got the ones that mattered thanks to two flashes of clinical finishing 21 minutes apart.
By the mid-point of the first half, the teams had swapped disappointing goals.
David Vaughan started the afternoon badly, directing Ronnie Stam’s mis-hit shot into his own net after dire defending failed to clear a Jean Beausejour cross.
Fortunately for Sunderland, Alfred N’Diaye’s impressive full debut allowed Vaughan to play nearer the opposition’s goal than usual, keeping him away from his own.
Stam carelessly gave the ball away in the build-up to the equaliser but its direct cause was James McArthur’s lack of bravery when Sebastian Larsson’s free-kick came at his head. It was the first penalty referee Anthony Taylor has given all season and the first Sunderland have received, but his judgement on what constituted deliberate handball was good all day. For a man short of practice, Craig Gardner despatched the kick expertly.
Then it was over to Fletcher. The Scot had already been a menace, flicking on for a chance N’Diaye ought not to have headed over and drawing fouls as Wigan struggled to get the ball off him with his back to goal.
He failed to convert his first good opportunity, Ali Al Habsi saving his header from a brilliant N’Diaye cross. Fletcher’s response was that of a predator, swivelling to volley the waist-high ball in.
When Adam Johnson laid his flick-on back to him, Fletcher’s finish was as emphatic as you might expect from a striker who almost always scores against Wigan. It was his sixth in seven games against them and minutes before the break, set up the second half.
Wigan utterly dominated it, but Sunderland did not seem overly concerned.
If Stéphane Sessègnon had not tried to beat Gary Caldwell a second time after being brilliantly released by Fletcher, they could have scored a fourth. O’Neill had cleverly stifled Wigan by producing a lop-sided midfield with Larsson tucked in from the right.
As the game wore on Martinez thinned out the overcrowded midfield, throwing on strikers instead.
With N’Diaye – who on this evidence could easily be the runner to Lee Cattermole’s anchorman – understandably tiring, it almost paid off.
Fletcher’s knack for putting the ball in the net deserted him when Jordi Gómez’s shot deflected off him but on to the bar. Maloney – the Premier League’s best No.10, Martinez implausibly claimed – clipped the post with a free-kick.
Eventually they found the net, Ángelo Henríquez taking advantage when John O’Shea’s sloppy pass across his own area picked out Wigan’s answer to Messi.
With his brief but impressive goalscoring record, wide forward Henríquez could yet be the finisher Wigan need for their now traditional escapology act.
The 18 year old, though, is only on loan – from Manchester United. Players of that ilk are hard to buy, British ones even more so.
It is why Sunderland should be so grateful they paid the £12m Wolverhampton Wanderers wanted for Fletcher.
It might also be worth bearing in mind if Swansea demand a little more than they might like for Graham.