“WELL... they wouldn’t have beaten Everton anyway!”
That comment was typical of the gallows-humour of Sunderland fans – bitter both in terms of cold and mood as they headed out of the concourses, and prepared to brave the thankless, freezing journey home last night
“How can we be so good against West Ham, and so bad three days later against Bolton?” growled another. “How bad were we?” laughed someone else.
One person who was not laughing was the club’s manager Martin O’Neill who is not prepared to accept the ‘Sunderland way’ of recent years – predictably unpredictable, consistently inconsistent.
He has been in charge for little more than a year now, and easily his biggest disappointments have all come in the cups not the league – in the FA Cup quarter-final against Everton in March; against Middlesbrough in the Capital One Cup in October and now, last night, against Bolton in the FA Cup again.
And he warned darkly last night that if this squad cannot change that failing; then he will change the squad.
He made three changes to the team which took West Ham to the cleaners at the weekend – Matt Kilgallon, Phil Bardsley and Connor Wickham coming in for John O’Shea, Seb Larsson and Stephen Fletcher.
But the changes should not have weakened the team that much.
Bolton made the early running, and looked the livelier side without ever testing Simon Mignolet.
A strangely disjointed Sunderland attacked only fitfully in that opening quarter-of-an-hour.
They didn’t muster a shot on goal until the 18th minute, when Craig Gardner fired a couple of yards wide.
In the 20th minute, Johnson went closer, a rising shot being tipped over the bar by Andy Lonergan, and the England winger was fuming seconds later when he delivered a superb corner from the right which flashed across the six-yard box without anyone capitalising on it.
By now though Sunderland were in their stride – Stephane Sessegnon drove a shot wide when he might have done better, while Gardner tried his luck from fully 30-yards from a free-kick, which forced Lonergan to make a smart save.
Bolton, for their part, had become barely visible as an attacking side – a Chris Eagles shot well wide in the 38th minute being a rare forage upfield
Despite that, the visitors would have been happy with the stalemate – though it was almost broken twice in a minute just before the break.
Johnson’s free-kick was gloved round the post by Lonergan, and from the resulting corner Titus Bramble screwed a low show across the face of goal.
It was only left for Wickham – too often left isolated up front – to head an excellent Sessegnon cross from the left straight into Lonergan’s midriff in the 43rd minute.
The stalemate looked set to continue in the second-half – Craig Gardner’s 35-yard free-kick which flew narrowly wide, the only attack of the opening few minutes.
Increasingly it looked like only a set-piece, or piece of good luck – or bad – would break the deadlock.
It might have come in the 52nd minute when a Sunderland clearance was headed straight back by Jay Spearing and the flag stayed down, allowing Marvin Sordell a one-on-one with Mignolet which the Sunderland keeper won.
Mignolet had another challenge in the 61st minute when Vaughan tried an ill-advised back pass, and the keeper managed to clear it with Sordell breathing down his neck.
Bolton were passing the ball well and took the lead with a 64th minute penalty.
Jack Colback seemed to have got his foot on the ball before Darren Pratley went over it, but the spot-kick was awarded and Marvin Sordell stepped up to drive a rising penalty powerfully to Mignolet’s right.
Sunderland tried to hit back, but their attempts lacked any real threat.
And the home side’s night got worse on 75 minutes as Tyrone Mears found Sordell, who made it 2-0.
Both sides made key changes in the closing stages, hoping to preserve or wrest the advantage. Bolton welcomed back former Sunderland trainee Stuart Holden after a near two-year absence from injury and introduced awkward front-man Kevin Davies in a bid to see the game out.
Sunderland brought on Lee Cattermole, Seb Larsson and Fraizer Campbell for Colback, Wickham and Johnson – Cattermole making his first start since November and looking sharp from his first touch.
Briefly there was hope – a Larsson free-kick from the left brought a save out of Lonergan, a Kilgallon header missed the target, a teasing Gardner cross bounced through the area, all in a matter of seconds with just a few minutes remaining.
But there was to be no second coming from Sunderland, who had fought back from 2-0 down at the Reebok Stadium.
This time there was just another going out of the cup in a flat and flaccid fashion.
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet 6, Bardsley 4, Kilgallon 4, Bramble 6, Colback 4 (Cattermole 76), Johnson 6 (Larsson 72, 5), Gardner 6, Vaughan 6 , McClean 5, Sessegnon 6, Wickham 5 (Campbell 72, 5). Subs not used: Westwood, McFadden, Saha.
BOLTON: Lonergan 7, Mears 6, Knight 6, Ricketts 6, Alonso 6, Eagles 7, Pratley 6, Vela 6 (Holden 74, 6), Spearing 6, Afobe 6 (Lee 70, 6), SORDELL 7 (Davies 86). Subs not used: Bogdan, Ream, Odelusi, Ngog.
Man of the match: Simon Mignolet wasn’t at fault for either of the goals.
Highlight: For Sunderland fans made miserable by the cup, at least the return of Lee Cattermole, who looked sharp, was a welcome sight.
Lowlight: Sunderland’s flatness in the second-half was hard to fathom, and Bolton were almost able to sleep-walk into the next round.
Scorers: Sordell (Bolton) 64, 75.
Ref: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire)