This pre-season Bishop Auckland’s Heritage Park has become Sunderland’s temporary home and it seems to be bringing the best out of them.
Goals for Sunderland’s senior players have been painfully hard to come by in pre-season, but they have found them here.
Good news, then, that they complete their preparations here against Udinese tomorrow.
Sunderland put seven past Darlington in their first warm-up game – a home match for the Quakers – and followed it up with goals for Steven Fletcher and Connor Wickham last night.
That both centre-forwards found the net in the 2-0 win over Real Betis will have been of great relief to Gustavo Poyet as he continues to wait for a decision from last season’s top-scorer Fabio Borini as to whether he will be rejoining for the coming campaign.
Cutting edge was something the Black Cats lacked for important periods last season.
Fletcher was never fully fit for it but having scored twice against Darlington, he should now go into the opening Premier League game at West Bromwich Albion – whose coach Alan Irvine was in the stands – in a positive frame of mind.
Emanuele Giaccherini had the first shot of the match, cutting in from the left flank on his right foot after two minutes. He was soon in a more central position, though, and for much of the half he played at centre-forward, with Wickham on the left of midfield.
When Giaccherini departed, holding the left side of his groin, after 39 minutes, Sunderland took on a more balanced look with Wickham back down the middle and Jordi Gomez on the left. Finding a role for Giaccherini in Poyet’s 4-1-4-1 formation remains a challenge.
Jack Rodwell was making his debut and his first contribution, a sliding tackle after six minutes, brought a smattering of polite applause from the sold-out crowd at Heritage Park.
The whistle had long since gone for offside when he put the ball in the net after 20 minutes, but it was encouraging to see a Sunderland midfielder running beyond Wickham to get on the end of Giaccherini’s cross. That did not happen often enough in Poyet’s debut season.
Sunderland had the better of a patchy first half, Sebastian Larsson volleying wide and Liam Bridcutt’s optimistic dipping shot from distance going wide. It was encouraging to see players at least taking a shot, and Bridcutt’s willingness to get the ball forward quickly was good to see too.
Rodwell also scooped a lovely pass, but Figueras Jordi fgot there before Giaccherini could.
Rodwell had another shot at the end of the first quarter after Adam Johnson charged down Alex Martinez’s attempted clearance.
Real Betis were being watched by Alfred N’Diaye, who sat in the stands in a Sunderland tracksuit watching his parent club play the one he spent last season on loan at and hopes to rejoin in this window.
The Spaniards were relegated from La Liga last season and they were unable to seriously trouble Vito Mannone on what, due to a variety of circumstances, wa ssomething of a rare pre-season outing for last season’s first-choice goalkeeper as he sets out to retain that status. This was his first full 90 minutes of pre-season.
Santiago Vergini was playing at right-back a little over an hour after his second loan signing had been announced. He was understandably rusty but his arrival suddenly makes the Black Cats’ look a lot better covered at the back.
Like Rodwell and John O’Shea, he was withdrawn at half-time. It took a feisty Lee Cattermole tackle seven minutes in to enliven the second half.
Javier Mantilla took great offence to the heftiness of the challenge on their team-mate – like Catternole recently arrived. Either side of it Jordi Gomez twice reacted badly to tackles from his marker.
Betis thought Wickham left his boot in on Antonio Adnan when he contested a loose ball with the goalkeeper but in truth it was there to be won. Sadly, actual football was a bit thinner on the ground. The introduction of Fletcher for the final half hour once more put a lot of emphasis on Patrick van Aanholt to provide the width on the left as Gomez moved to the opposite flank to complete a front three.
It was Fletcher who opened the scoring after 73 minutes, drilling home after latching on to a mistake from pink-booted centre-back Gonzalo Bruno to drill the ball home.
Enlivened by it, a couple of minutes later Gomez thudded a shot into the advertising hoardings.
With 83 minutes gone Wickham thudded a second and suddenly an evening which had provided little to get excited about took on a more positive look.
Meanwhile, El-Hadji Ba’s season-long loan to Bastia was completed yesterday.
The French midfielder’s only Premier League appearance in his debut season on Wearside came as a final-day substitute.