If Saturday marked the end of Kevin Ball’s latest spell as caretaker manager, he has at least left the team he loves so dearly with a renewed sense of spirit, purpose and togetherness. What he could not do was inject them with self-belief.
Combine the determination of Sunderland’s second half against Liverpool with the football of the first 45 minutes against Manchester United, and all is not lost for the Black Cats, despite what the league table might say.
But two goals in eight second-half minutes created an instant air of inevitability around the Stadium of Light.
There was no need for it.
For 45 minutes Sunderland had matched, if not bettered, talented opponents whose morale has also taken a bit of a battering recently. In Emanuele Giaccherini they had the outstanding player of the first half.
But when their failure to put away chances was compounded by the ice-cool finishing of the star of the second half, Adnan Januzaj, the towel seemed to come in pretty quickly. There was no lack of effort, but no conviction either.
Bringing on Ji Dong-won – on the left wing – and Connor Wickham, with a combined goal tally of one more in their Premier League careers than Januzaj managed on his full debut, hardly inspired confidence. Neither did replacing the incisive but no doubt tiring Craig Gardner with Sebastian Larsson.
It was a real evening of what-might-have-beens.
When Adam Johnson planted a cross onto the head of the tiny Giaccherini, David De Gea’s flying right-handed save was astonishing.
After the match both managers agreed it had been its turning point. When asked if a Giaccherini goal might have had implications beyond the match, David Moyes responded with the kind of icy Glaswegian stare that makes you no more willing to mess with him than his exalted predecessor. “It wouldn’t have changed my landscape,” he said.
Perhaps it could have changed Ball’s though. At 2-0 down Moyes admitted his side “would have had a mountain to climb”. A Sunderland win would have made it extremely difficult for Ellis Short not to promote Ball from caretaker to permanent manager. Without it he has a case, but not a cast-iron one.
If Short had gone home at half-time, the ink might be drying on Ball’s contract now.
The Red Devils looked like the bottom-of-the-table side when Phil Jones hit Giaccherini’s cross straight at Nemanja Vidic, who miscontrolled. Craig Gardner did brilliantly to pounce on the loose ball and place it right inside De Gea’s far post.
Gardner might have capitalised on another Jones’ mistake four minutes later, but dwelt on the ball long enough considering his options for the central defender to win back the possession he had surrendered.
If the fragile confidence of Jones and Vidic, unsettled by Jozy Altidore’s power was obvious, so was the belief in Giaccherini, backheeling soon after to release Ondrej Celustka down the right. Keiren Westwood showed it too, brilliantly saving from Wayne Rooney, not knowing an offside flag had been raised.
Nani volleyed off target when Patrice Evra’s cross cleared Jack Colback, but Sunderland were rueing their wastefulness more. Giaccherini followed up his header by blazing over after Johnson caused panic in the Red Devils’ defence.
The pessimist in every Wearsider must have feared the misses coming back to bite them, and so it proved.
Even in the first half Januzaj, a Belgium who also qualifies to play for Albania, Croatia and – if he stays a few more years – England, impressed with his technical ability in what was nominally a left-wing position but actually an inside-left one.
His outrageous flop when John O’Shea thought about stretching his leg out to tackle in the penalty area showed diving is not just something Englishmen like Ashley Young get up to. He was rightly booked. But his ruthlessness had a more acceptable side. After a one-two with Evra his equalising finish was as impressive as Gardner’s. If that was the touch of a gnarled veteran, his volley when O’Shea could only weakly head Nani’s outside-of-the-boot cross to him was more befitting a precocious 18-year-old full debutant.
The panic Sunderland had wrought in the visitors’ back four only returned when Westwood twice went up for added-time corners. By then Robin van Persie had missed an easy chance after Luis Antonio Valencia sliced the Black Cats’ offside trap open.
For 45 glorious minutes Sunderland had looked anything but relegation fodder but when push came to shove they seemed to know their place all too well.