Gustavo Poyet’s summer rebuilding programme has been all about adding quality beneath the surface, and last night Jordi Gomez showed he is capable of bringing it. It took a smart goal from the Spaniard on his full debut to inject life into a dull night at St Andrew’s.
Once his long-range shot nudged the door open, Adam Johnson and Connor Wickham were able to barge through it to give a tough night a more positive feel.
Sunderland’s love affair with the League Cup may have ended disappointingly last season but judging by the support from the away end and the quality of players on the field, they still respect it.
Unfortunately, until Gomez intervened, it failed to translate into any entertainment. The 1,997 travelling supporters had to amuse themselves by abusing their former midfielder Lee Clark, and ridiculing the lack of fans in the rest of the stadium.
The quality of the game matched the flat atmosphere, unfortunately.
Birmingham promised much in the first five minutes, Paul Caddis forcing another Sunderland full debutant, Costel Pantilimon, to touch his dipping shot behind, but the only other moment of note in the first 20 minutes came when Gomez had his right eyebrow stitched by the dugout. With Billy Jones also making his first start for a Black Cats starting line-up featuring Jozy Altidore for the first time this season, it was a strong visiting side, but the quality of football they produced was poor.
Having switched wings with Connor Wickham early in the piece, Adam Johnson’s left-wing cross after half an hour was a welcome exception, but Altidore lacked the striker’s instinct to throw himself the short distance onto it. When Sebastian Larsson played a clever pass back into the American, he blazed high, wide and not especially handsome.
When Johnson dropped deep into a holding midfield position, his pass was a good 20 yards in front of Jones. Larsson’s backheel in his own centre circle picked out Mark Duffy, and when Sunderland regained possession, Gomez conceded it trying to release Altidore one-on-one.
Even Pantilimon was off the pace, dropping a cross under pressure from Clayton Donaldson.
Johnson was involved in the few good things Sunderland did, drilling a crossfield pass from which Wickham’s cross was deflected for a corner, but he was unable to give left-back Jones the support he needed against Duffy, easily the most impressive wide player on show.
On 24 minutes he beat Jones with ease, only for Santiago Vergini to chest his cross behind at the back post.
Birmingham looked a threat in the final five minutes, and all the danger was coming down their right. When Duffy drove to the byline Wes Thomas stabbed wide under pressure.
Pantilimon made a good save with his feet from Thomas, and David Cotterill hit the post from the rebound.
Early in the second half Vergini to his surprise as much as anyone’s dribbled his way into a shooting position but like many of Sunderland’s efforts, it struck a defender. The same was true of Altidore’s shot from distance.
Liam Bridcutt’s late challenge on Clayton Donaldson – fair in the eyes of the referee but looking suspiciously like retaliation for Thomas’ tackle on him minutes earlier – raised the volume levels in the stands, but sadly not the performance levels on the pitch.
After 67 minutes Colin Doyle was forced to make a save – albeit a comfortable one – by Bridcutt. The ball had fallen to him when Gomez’s free-kick hit the wall.
Birmingham too were happy to shoot from distance, former Newcastle United defender David Edgar hitting a powerful effort Pantilimon did well to hold, and Stephen Gleeson just off target slightly on the turn.
So Sunderland had a go too, and when Johnson laid the ball back to Gomez on 76 minutes he produced a low shot from distance totally out of keeping with the football that had gone before.
The goal transformed the game. Donaldson had Pantilimon stretching as he hit a bouncing ball, then went narrowly wide with an overhead bycicle kick.
But once Doyle palmed Altidore’s shot into the path of Johnson with three minutes to go, the game was over.
Connor Wickham added extra gloss and got off the mark for the season when he finished off a left-wing counter-attack orchestrated by Emanuel Giaccherini.