THERE were ominous omens for the superstitious Sunderland fans who braved the snow and ice to make it to Molineux, but once they arrived they found a whole new set of negative messages.
The game fell 364 days after the Black Cats’ “winter of discontent” kicked off with defeat at Wigan Athletic and the parallels with 2009 put manager Steve Bruce in a downbeat mood this week. On paper his squad is much better prepared to deal with the misfortunes repeating on them, but on grass they looked anything but.
The Wearsiders have completed the set of matches against the 2009-10 Premier League’s top ten undefeated but are still prone to lapses against the stragglers.
On Saturday those lapses were defensive as the solid back four which shut out Manchester United and Chelsea was replaced by a hapless rabble against a team who at half-time sat bottom of the table.
The team-sheet ought to have been a statement of defiance, but in practice only boosted Wolves’ flagging morale. John Mensah deserves immense credit for volunteering to return three weeks early from a dislocated shoulder, but it did not do his team any favours. ‘The Rock’s’ confidence had been eroded and his lack of assuredness was contagious.
The best defensive players are often not appreciated until they are not there, and this game highlighted how good Titus Bramble and Michael Turner have been. Without them Sunderland’s back four looked disorganised and lightweight.
They could take some comfort from the tigerish protection Lee Cattermole was offering in front of them, but none from glancing over their shoulders.
The sight of a team-mate wearing a “snood” – a type of knitted women’s clothing – around his neck should alarm any footballer and Craig Gordon did nothing to suggest this was a player up for the challenge posed by freezing temperatures and aggressive opponents. The last to touch the ball before Wolves’ first two goals, he carried all the presence of the Invisible Man. Mensah cut out Kevin Doyle’s fifth-minute cross but could only give it straight back, forcing him to head clear the follow-up shot. Five minutes later he misjudged a clearing header so badly it went backwards, and was relieved Doyle had been offside when the ball was initially launched.
Again the striker’s inability to stay the right side of the defence paid dividends when Boudewijn Zenden and Danny Welbeck fluffed attempted clearances.
Even when Mensah defended well, it nearly backfired.
An excellent interception kept a cross from Kevin Foley but the ball only just cleared Gordon’s bar.
Mensah was blameless for the moment which summed up Sunderland’s first half, failing to properly execute his clearance because Ferdinand clattered into him – not something you want when nursing a dislocated shoulder. David Jones headed over the resulting cross.
Mensah’s willingness to put his fragile body on the line ought to have inspired his team-mates but the signals to those on the bench were demoralising.
Bruce signed Paulo Da Silva, Marcos Angeleri and Ahmed Elmohamady, yet would rather play a crock alongside a defender (Ferdinand) he is at best lukewarm to. Owner Ellis Short is entitled to ask what the first two in particular are doing on his payroll.
With defending that shaky, Sunderland were always going to need plenty of luck to make it to half-time without conceding, and they got it. When Gordon missed a Matt Jarvis corner, Richard Stearman inexplicably headed wide.
Had Wolves not escaped with a much-needed win, Stearman would have had plenty of explaining to do.
The centre-back had a goal disallowed from another corner, level with the last defender but behind Gordon.
Wolves’ goal also led a charmed life, the otherwise disappointing Kieran Richardson thumping a free-kick against the inside of the post.
When Bent dwelt on Jordan Henderson’s ball on the frosty part of the pitch, the punishment was harsh. A minute later Jarvis cut inside Henderson and Gordon pushed his shot straight to Foley, who netted.
Fifty minutes in, Sunderland were at last stung into life.
Not so long ago their rock-solid defence was let down by a lack of ruthlessness at the opposite end. Now, with Danny Welbeck on hot form and Bent and Asamoah Gyan at last fit at the same time, the opposite is true.
Had you not witnessed Sunderland’s defending you would have thought their two goals in nine minutes had set up a smash-and-grab. Bent capitalised when Stearman missed Gyan’s flick-on and Welbeck’s header from 19 yards was outstanding. Bent should have done better than to hit the side netting in between time.
Stephen Hunt’s equaliser was a damming indictment. His shot, after Gordon palmed the ball to him, was the fourth in a move which started when a free-kick was harshly awarded against Steed Malbranque and ought to have ended when Stearman collected in an offside position.
Mensah succumbed to the pain and chaos ensued. Right-back Elmohamady was caught upfield, Ferdinand dragged across to deal with Doyle and Nedum Onuoha allowed Sylvan Ebanks-Blake to pull behind into space, take Doyle’s pass and win the game.