THE SWEET taste of a maiden victory of the campaign may have arrived for Martin O’Neill, but it continues to elude Kevin Ball.
Sunderland’s under-21s endured a fourth successive winless outing last night after the Black Cats’ opening home game culminated in a relatively dour stalemate against Manchester United.
Clear-cut chances were at a premium and despite a late near-miss from substitute Ryan Noble, Sunderland couldn’t muster the breakthrough that would have seen them break their duck for the season.
But there were elements of intrigue for the watching O’Neill and his coaching team.
Blair Adams was a constant threat to the visitors with his bursts forward from left-back, while Connor Wickham led the line well, holding the ball up far more crisply than he managed in Sunderland’s last under-21 outing against Newcastle.
Despite a powerful shot on the turn in the fourth minute, Wickham rarely looked a goal threat though and spent too much time with his back to goal rather than chancing his arm in behind the United backline.
Wickham was deployed as the central figure in a front four, with Adam Mitchell and Ji Dong-won providing mixed service from the flanks and Billy Knott operating in the hole.
It worked effectively in the first half, with the bright Knott at the heart of things as Sunderland dominated.
But Sunderland faded as an attacking force after the break, with only Adams showing the hunger to break down United’s well-drilled backline.
Wickham and Ji were the only first-team contenders in Sunderland’s ranks and the former tested the reflexes of United stopper Sam Johnstone in the fourth minute, having a powerful shot parried behind.
Sunderland let fly with several efforts from distance – Ji twice blazing over, as did James Armstrong and Knott, whose deflected effort from 20 yards just cleared the crossbar.
Adam Reed then tried his luck from 25 yards in the 30th minute with a dipping effort that required a full-length parry from Johnstone.
United almost snatched the lead two minutes before the break after right winger Joshua King caught Adams in possession and burst into the box from the flank.
King was left with just Ben Wilson to beat but his shot was blocked smartly by the legs of the keeper, allowed to play for the Black Cats despite being on a month’s loan at League Two Chesterfield.
Johnstone got lucky four minutes into the second half when his attempted clearance was blocked by Wickham.
The former Ipswich man tried to squeeze it past Johnstone from an acute angle, but the keeper recovered and smothered with his body.
Angelo went close at the other end in the 59th minute when he beat Liam Marrs to the ball down the left of Sunderland’s area and struck a fierce shot on the turn which was gathered at the second attempt by Wilson.
United’s former first-team protegee Federico Macheda provided another near miss moments later when he drilled a shot across goal that drifted inches wide of the far post.
Noble was introduced with nine minutes to go and with his first contribution, he almost handed Sunderland the lead.
Reed fed a well-weighted through-ball for the former Hartlepool loanee, who twisted and turned inside of Tom Thorpe before attempting to place a low shot into the bottom corner which was sent behind by the outstretched leg of Johnstone.
United replacement Tyler Blackett almost nicked it in stoppage time but his drilled effort from a 25-yard free-kick was a couple of yards wide of Wilson’s post.
SUNDERLAND: Wilson, Marrs, Adams, Reed, Laing, Ferguson, Armstrong, Knott (Gorrin 76), Wickham (Noble 81), Ji, Mitchell (Laidler 71). Subs not used: Dixon, Oliver
MAN UNITED: Johnstone, Angelo (James 74), Ekangamene, Vesselli, Thorpe, Fornasier, Cole, King, Macheda, Petrucci, Brady (Blackett 66). Subs not used: Gollini, McCulloch, Hendrie. Booked: Macheda (89)