An early goal from Steve Howard proved enough last night for Hartlepool to overcome a tame Sunderland side. Titus Bramble's early error ultimately proved costly, as Sunderland's need for a striker became all too obvious as the game wore on.
That result takes our pre-season record to one win and two losses now - hardly the most promising of form, but let's not forget that these games are primarily about fitness.
Here is what we took from the game...
What The Gaffer Said
Martin O'Neill's usual pragmatism was tinged with disappointment after the game when he spoke to safc.com. The manager seemed pleased with the workout his side were given, but he was clear in his belief that the performance in the opening 45 minutes was simply not good enough.
It's another workout for us and only our third game, but I don't think we played particularly well. Hartlepool were strong and really up for the challenge. We've still some way to go in terms of fitness but it was a good workout.
I was disappointed with things in the first half, such as an inability to control the ball, pass it and keep it moving, but we'll get there.
We got stronger as the game went on which was encouraging..."I would have thought there will be a vast improvement by the time we play Helsingborgs, and certainly by the time we play Derby and Leicester.
O'Neill also mentioned that his side may need a bit of time to get back into their stride following their Korea trip, though his final remark about expecting "vast improvement" suggests even he will run out of pre-season patience if the same old mistakes keep cropping up.
Titus Bramble Needs To Up His Game
It's almost as if Titus Bramble doesn't want to be a professional footballer. Alleged indiscretions aside - ones which he was, of course, cleared of - Bramble's conduct on the field continues to disappoint.
Last summer he returned to training clearly unfit and off the pace, and he seems to have made few amends this time around. Steve Howard's brief foray into the Premier League with Derby County in 2006/07 was an awful one, as he managed just one goal in the entire campaign, yet at times last night Bramble made him look like a world-beater. Not only was Howard able to score the game's only goal, he very nearly got a second ten minutes later - again the beneficiary of hapless defending from the sluggish Bramble.
Given Michael Turner's recent departure, one would think this was the perfect time for Bramble to seize his chance. And yet, he seems bent on blowing what surely must be his final opportunity. Scarcely twelve hours after his poor showing last night, he took to Twitter to announce his admiration for Leon Knight and the way he "keep[s] it real" and says what he thinks. That's the same Leon Knight who launched a foul-mouthed tirade against a married mother this week. Cheers, Titus, how lovely it is to have characters like you at our club.
We NEED A Striker - And Quickly
Roker Report honcho Simon Walsh mentioned this explicitly in our match report but it bears thinking about some more. Sunderland weren't without chances last night - some of Scott Flinders' saves in the Hartlepool goal seemed to defy physics - yet the fact remains that they failed to put the ball in the back of the net for the seventh time in their last ten matches (stretching back to the game against Spurs in April).
Fraizer Campbell looks increasingly unlikely to fulfil the potential so many see in him - he was extremely poor last night - while the rest of Sunderland's strikeforce is made up of youngsters with a handful of Premier League games between them.
O'Neill's need for a striker has never been more obvious, and the issue is becoming ever more urgent. The season kicks off in exactly three weeks, and any new arrival will need some sort of "settling-in" period before the big kick-off.
Jack Colback Can Play Just About Anywhere
One of the only positives from last night was the performance of Jack Colback. Already a confident performer in central midfield, and similarly so at left-back, Colback was selected on the left-wing ahead of Kieran Richardson and performed more than ably. A nutmeg and a sprint down the line were followed by a perfect ball into the area; inexplicably, Ryan Noble headed wide.
Even when moved to left-back, he remained an attacking threat. It was his cross that met the head of Campbell, only for Flinders' to pull off an astonishing save and somewhere keep Hartlepool's lead intact. Colback's best position remains in central midfield, but his increasing versatility will no doubt be an asset over the course of the season.