Clayton Donaldson endeared himself to a new public by scoring two splendid goals on his Sheffield United debut as Chris Wilder’s side continued to suggest they could yet prove capable of challenging for a second successive promotion.
On this early evidence, avoiding successive relegations may be the extent of Sunderland’s ambitions this season. Simon Grayson had hoped to preside over his new team’s first home win since December but the power and unerring accuracy of Donaldson’s left foot ensured the wait goes on.
Although Jack Rodwell headed in a stoppage time consolation from Callum McManaman’s free-kick, this was a frequently awful Sunderland performance leavened only by some promising moments from Crystal Palace loanee Jonny Williams. Damningly that goal represented their sole effort on target.
It threatens to be a long winter for Grayson, who was so distressed by Sunderland’s previous display – a 3-0 defeat at Barnsley last month – that he cancelled plans to watch his favourite rock band, Kasabian, in concert that evening.
He seemed similarly downcast on Saturday night. “It’s frustrating for everyone,” said Grayson who, after this defensive horror show, will surely find the title of Kasabain’s latest album, For Crying Out Loud, particularly evocative. “But we always knew it was going to be a tough season. It’s a big job but there’s still a long way to go. Things can change very quickly.”
He had endeavoured to alter the long-running winless home ground narrative by matching Sheffield United and setting Sunderland up with a back three.
This switch failed to make an impact, leaving Lamine Koné and company with no answer to the 21st-minute counter-attack that concluded with Donaldson collecting Billy Sharp’s delivery, dodging Marc Wilson and squeezing a left-foot shot just inside the near post from the edge of the area.
Wilder’s deadline day signing from Birmingham City continued to pose Sunderland problems and might have scored again had Robbin Ruiter not tipped his looping header from Mark Duffy’s cross over the bar.
Released by Utrecht this summer, the goalkeeper is one of 10 Grayson signings recruited for a grand total of £1.25m. If that sum would almost certainly not afford one of Neymar’s toenails, it also highlights the scale of the challenge facing Sunderland’s latest manager.
As Rodwell, among others, endured chants of “You’re not fit to wear the shirt,” it was often hard to recognise that United, for whom Chris Basham impressed defensively, had been a League One side last season and Sunderland Premier League residents. Donaldson duly delighted in amplifying the crowd’s unhappiness by springing the home offside trap and scoring again. Accelerating onto David Brooks’s fine through ball the 33-year-old extended that menacing left foot to shoot beyond the advancing Ruiter and on into the top corner from outside the area.
“A great day for Clayton and a fantastic day for our football club,” said Wilder. “Clayton is underrated. We looked a dangerous team.”
The nearest Sunderland had come to scoring before that was when, with half-time approaching, James Vaughan met Lewis Grabban’s cross and volleyed fractionally wide of the far post.
Sheffield United very nearly celebrated a third when Ched Evans, on for Donaldson, saw a shot deflected onto the top of the bar. Judging by the boos that greeted the final whistle, Rodwell’s subsequent contribution deceived no one.
“Are you watching Ellis Short,” chorused the suitably disillusioned Wearsiders. Right now, they seem to regard the American financier’s stewardship of their club with the sort of distaste Newcastle fans reserve for Mike Ashley’s regime.
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