Sunderland's involvement in Euro 2012 kicked off yesterday evening, as the Republic of Ireland took on Croatia in Poznan. Fresh from a thirteen game unbeaten streak, the men from the Emerald Isle went into their opening Group C encounter brimming with optimism.
It was to prove unfounded. Scarcely three minutes had elapsed before Mario Mandzukic was afforded too much room in the box and, with Shay Given unable to change direction quickly in slippy conditions, the Wolfsburg frontman nodded his nation into the lead.
Sean St Ledger would pull one back for Giovanni Trapattoni's side, but a first time finish from Everton's Nikica Jelavic and then an unfortunate own goal by way of Shay Given's head sealed a 3-1 win for the impressive Croatians.
Their victory was deserved. In spite of the cacophonous noise from green sections of the crowd, those on the field looked nervy and stuttering throughout. The first goal - though stemming from a deflected cross - came as a result of lackadaisical defending. The second, arguably offside, saw Jelavic put through courtesy of a sliced Stephen Ward clearance. The third bounced off the post and Given's head before hitting the net, but Mandzukic was again afforded too much time to pull off his marker - although, his header was expertly placed.
The famed 'luck of the Irish' eluded Trapattoni's men last night. That third goal was the most glaring example, but Robbie Keane's later unsuccessful appeal for a penalty was a dubious decision at best. Regardless, no one could complain that Slaven Bilic's men were not worthy winners.
As for red and white matters, Sunderland's participation in the game was limited to the role of John O'Shea at right-back. Well renowned as a better centre-back than wide defender, O'Shea was preferred in this role by Trapattoni as a more experienced member of the squad - Richard Dunne and St Ledger took up the central roles.
Unfortunately for the ex-Manchester United man, his experience counted for little here. As stated, the Irish defensive effort was a largely disjointed effort. Perhaps it was nerves given their excellent recent run of clean sheets, but the Irish back four never really settled and, faced with the excellent movement of Mandzukic, it proved to be a cardinal sin.
Defensively, O'Shea was probably the best of the four - though this was perhaps more by good luck than good management. Croatia mostly sought to attack down their own right side - utilising the excellent attacking options of Darijo Srna at right-back and Ivan Rakitic. Srna was a particular threat, regularly running into space. This led to Bilic's side neglecting their left wing - rendering much of O'Shea's work to be that of clearing up the scraps and winning the odd header.
For his part, he did this fairly well. Ireland's deep line wasn't perhaps the best way to combat an impressive attacking side, but O'Shea certainly didn't contribute to the litany of errors on show.
The problem was, he didn't contribute in an attacking sense either. His distribution - while not as bad as some Sunderland fans wish to make out - has been a bugbear over the past season, and so it proved again last night. By half time he'd completed just 10 of 21 attempted passes, a figure which didn't improve much in the second half.
In addition, in that same second half, neither he nor fellow full-back Ward offered their side anything going forward. Trapattoni's substitutions did little to effect the game in a positive manner for the Irish (more on this soon), but the lack of desire to get forward by O'Shea and Ward severely limited the side's attacking options. In a game that Ireland simply had to get a result from - they face Spain and Italy next - this unwillingness to throw caution to the wind was a strange strategy.
The other Sunderland man in the squad who was expected to feature last night was James McClean. His omittance from the starting XI was no great surprise when the side was announced last week, but Trapattoni's refusal to use him at all was disappointing.
Especially given the influence Srna had on the game, it is hard to see what harm bringing McClean on would have done. The Irish manager may have opted to leave him out for fear of big game nerves, but in that case he should never have taken him to Poland in the first place. Furthermore, the man he did bring on at left-wing - Simon Cox - is hardly the most experienced of sorts either.
McClean's introduction would have brought a new directness to the Irish side, as well as limiting Srna's attacking presence. The youngster has also shown in his brief time in the Premier League his ability to defend well and get back quickly, another asset that would have enabled Ireland to go all out.
His non-use, then, perhaps suggests he was only given a place on the plane as a result of public pressure. McClean's rise to the national team has been fairly meteoric, and maybe Trapattoni saw the public clamour for his inclusion as too grand to ignore, yet will decide not to use him now that he has placated the media and fans alike. Hopefully, this won't be the case.
Ireland must now face the two previous world champions - a tall order by anyone's standards - knowing they cannot afford another loss if they are to progress.