Stu Forster - Getty Images
Sunderland finally grabbed their first league win of the season with a nervy 1-0 win over 10-man Wigan at The Stadium of Light thanks to another goal from 'overpriced' and 'average' (circa one month ago) Steven Fletcher.
There was an air of apprehension on Wearside this morning, one which in previous years would have been laughable. Given their recent troubles, Sunderland fans would not have expected to be feeling somewhat nervy after a run of four games without defeat to start the season yet, such is the expectation which Martin O'Neill has brought to the Stadium of Light, the lack of a victory thus far produced just that.
The visit of Wigan Athletic - a side now well accustomed to the lower reaches of the table - brought with it a sour taste. Ten months ago it was against the Latics that the Steve Bruce reign unravelled once and for all. A Kieren Westwood miskick, a Wes Brown miscue, and Franco Di Santo was on hand to seal the old manager's fate in the north-east.
Moving on to more present events, the Black Cats found themselves immediately buoyed with the news that Adam Johnson had passed a late fitness test. Devoid of his captain Lee Cattermole after his idiotic sending off in midweek, the return of new signing Johnson was a boost for O'Neill.
His side lined up in a formation that seemed to flutter between 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-1-1. Simon Mignolet has deservedly cemented his place as the club's top stopper, and, with Carlos Cuéllar still out injured, his back four was (from left to right): Danny Rose, Titus Bramble, John O'Shea and Craig Gardner. Seb Larsson joined Jack Colback in the centre of midfield, with Stephane Sessegnon ahead of them. Meanwhile, Johnson and James McClean were gifted the task of supplying striker Steven Fletcher.
Roberto Martinez's men set up in their now famed 3-4-3 system. Ali Al-Habsi remained in goal, with a back three of Maynor Figueroa, Gary Caldwell and Ivan Ramis ahead of him. Jean Beausejour and Emmerson Boyce operated as wing-backs, with James McArthur and James McCarthy confusing everyone everywhere by playing together in the centre. Up front, the strong Arouna Koné was flanked by Shaun Maloney and Jordi Gomez.
With this seen as a very attainable three points for Sunderland, it will have perplexed many that the visitors started by far the brighter. It took just three minutes for Mignolet to be called into action, diverting James McCarthy's well struck effort away with his legs after just three minutes. Jordi Gomez's effort from the resulting corner went wide, but left few in doubt that Sunderland would not be strolling to their opening league win of this campaign.
Martinez's unorthodox formation seemed to bewilder the Wearsiders in the opening stages, and with their three advanced midfielders either losing possession carelessly - see Sessegnon and McClean - or simply not involved - see Johnson - the Latics controlled the opening quarter of an hour.
Indeed it was only a moment of heroism from Mignolet that kept the scores level. Jean Beausejour found space down the left and sent over a cross that strayed well into the Sunderland defence's "danger zone". With John O'Shea struggling to meet and intercept the ball, it found its way to Koné, who simply had to tap home from two yards. With the visiting fans high above the goal in the North Stand already preparing their celebrations, Sunderland keeper Mignolet somehow scrambled across his line and palmed the ball to safety. It was his second world class save in as many games - he was unsurprisingly thanked by the entire home support in an instant.
From there, Sunderland improved, though not markedly. In the middle, Colback and Larsson struggled to arrest control of the game. All too often they moved as one, going forward together when one should sit back, retreating together when one should have been slightly more advanced. For all Lee Cattermole's faults, Sunderland miss their captain when he doesn't play.
A Craig Gardner shot flew wide while Larsson looked to threaten from set pieces, but the home side didn't trouble Al-Habsi once in the opening half. Koné continued to impress up front for Wigan, and after another McCarthy effort flew narrowly wide, Sunderland were happy to go in level at the break.
Scarcely had the sides emerged from the break than Howard Webb's red card was in the air. Jordi Gomez's lunge on Danny Rose seemed rash, but debatable as to whether or not it merited dismissal. Webb thought so, Martinez didn't; Sunderland were left bemused, and knowing full well the game was now there for the taking.
It took just three minutes for the advantage to tell. Sessegnon - who had improved progressively as the game went on - found McClean with a nicely threaded pass, and the Irishman finally decided to try his luck in taking on Boyce. In a move reminiscent of last season, the young winger zipped past his marker, before firing an effort at goal. He screwed it badly wide (he will no doubt now attempt to claim it was a cross), but man of the moment Steven Fletcher was on hand to poke the ball home with a flick of his left boot. It was a finish of supreme confidence from a striker at the top of his game.
From there the game became ever more dour. Hoping for the kill, fans in the stands were somewhat dismayed at Sunderland's inability to run riot over their opponents. McClean sent over a cross that Sessegnon wasn't too far from getting a touch to, while the red and whites continued to win corners in abundance. The visitors were never fully out of it - at 0-1, no one ever is - but in truth they never looked like scoring following Gomez's dismissal.
It may not have been pretty, but Sunderland have their first win of the season - and are now five games without defeat. Many may moan that their side should be winning games of this nature far more comfortably, but the O'Neill ethos seems very much to be "defend first, attack second". If results continue to go his way, he will be more than justified in his methods.