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Black Cats seem upwardly mobile.

Byline: By Stuart Rayner

Like the magpie which made a laboured appearance around the Stadium of Light pitch on Saturday, Sunderland have been struggling with only one fully functioning wing recently.

But a tactical rethink against Hull City produced perhaps the most fluid and fluent football of the Wearsiders' remarkable season ( until boyhood Rokerite Phil Brown put a lid on it with his own strategic reshuffle at half-time.

Although the quality of their play was not reflected in the quantity of goals, Sunderland ended St Patrick's Day in the automatic promotion positions for the first time this term, albeit for less than 24 hours thanks to Birmingham City's derby draw at West Brom yesterday.

Jonny Evans' header after 102 seconds looked set to open the floodgates, but the Black Cats endured a nervy second period until another late goal by substitue Stern John wrapped up maximum points.

Carlos Edwards' absence with what the medical men call "a significant disruption to his acromioclavicular joint" ( a knackered shoulder to the rest of us ( has been compounded by Anthony Stokes' sloppy time-keeping.

The teenager was not Sunderland's most impressive performer on his return, appropriately later than the rest, after being one of three players to miss the bus to Barnsley. But the presence of a centre-forward whose footballing gifts make him equally comfortably playing wide, allowed an unorthodox but effective formation.

Such was the fluidity of the Black Cats' shape it seemed to change every time you looked at it, but they were basically 4-2-1-3, Dean Whitehead and Liam Miller taking it in turns to sit alongside Dwight Yorke while the other foraged behind a front three of Stokes, David Connolly and Daryl Murphy, who regularly interchanged positions. It worked a treat, not that manager Roy Keane was taking much credit.

"I just fancied it, that's all," he said of the formation. "I wanted to try something a bit different with Stokesey and Murph. They had a bit of freedom.

"Yorkie sitting deep allowed Deano and Liam chance to get forward and with a bit more care in the attacking third we would have got a second or third goal in the first half.

"But it's just a game of football, really. Don't get bogged down by the tactics. It came from good movement, good control, trusting your team-mates, passing it well. That comes down to good players."

Before the total football, Sunderland were already in front with a more basic goal. Whitehead lofted a free-kick to the back post where Evans headed his first goal in English senior football. When the 18-year-old forced an excellent save from Boaz Myhill after 37 minutes his side were rampant. Roared on by their second biggest crowd of the season (chairman Niall Quinn will be pleased to see them nudging closer to the 40,000 mark), the Black Cats responded.

The 15th-minute move which swept across the field was typical. Picking up the ball on the right, Stokes found the impressive Whitehead, who fed Connolly. When the top-scorer crossed, Stokes was fractionally short of making contact.

Brilliant football, just lacking an end product. There were to be numerous other examples.

Murphy's presence allowed variation, John's more mobile replacement flicking a goal-kick on for Connolly to turn and shoot just wide soon after. Perhaps the appearance of the injured black-and-white bird, flapping and hopping on to the playing surface to a chorus of boos shortly after the restart was a sign.

After the feast of first-half football, there was always the danger of a second-half famine. While the contrast was not quite that extreme, Hull's South Shields-born manager Brown becalmed Sunderland.

With nearly half an hour left, Keane reverted to 4-4-2 and substitute Grant Leadbitter's first involvement was an excellent cross. It looked a certain offside then, when the flag stayed down, a certain goal. Connolly somehow found the back of the stanchion from the wrong side of the net.

Sadly, the rest of Leadbitter's performance as a makeshift right-winger only raised the stock of Edwards and Stokes. The second-half focus was to thread balls through the middle, Whitehead displaying an impressive range of passing.

But those which found a way through were not met with a killer finish and it was left to Tigers centre-back Michael Turner to apply the decisive blow.

His 90th-minute backpass was innocuous until Myhill miskicked it and John pounced. The substitute looked to have taken the ball too far wide of the American, but found the net from an acute angle.

For all their second-half improvement, Hull posed little threat, even when Ricardo Vaz Te and Nicky Barmby arrived to supplement Dean Windass, with most attacks strangled at source.

The on-loan Manchester United pair of Evans and Danny Simpson made noteworthy contributions either side of John's, Evans tackling Dean Marney as the midfielder wound up for a volley, Simpson brilliantly timing a tackle in the area as he came across to cover Sam Ricketts.

Those scares apart, however, the hosts never looked like having their wings clipped.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 19, 2007
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