Season Review: March

by Ashley Houghton

O'Neill era comes to an end.

Sunderland started March with a 2-2 draw against Fulham as Craig Gardner and Stephane Sessegnon salvaged a point for the Black Cats.

Dimitar Berbatov opened the scoring for the Cottagers before Sascha Riether doubled the hosts’ advantage.

Midfielder Jack Colback was disappointed that his side didn’t get the win against Martin Jol’s men after a poor start proved costly.

“Maybe it was good for the neutral but obviously it was disappointing for us and the fans that we didn’t get the win.

“We deserved a draw, definitely, and on another day we might have gone on and nicked it.”

Following the draw with the Cottagers, midfielder Billy Knott extended his loan spell with Woking as the former Chelsea man helped the Cardinals record their highest finish in seven years.

Next up for the Black Cats was a trip to relegation threatened Queens Park Rangers as Sunderland looked for their first win in six games.

Steven Fletcher had given Martin O’Neill’s side hope, though goals from Loic Remy, Andros Townsend and Jermaine Jenas earned the points for Harry Redknapp’s men.

Afterwards, defender John O’Shea spoke of the need for the Black Cats to ‘front up’ ahead of a big game with Norwich City.

“We have to front up now. We have a big week and the Norwich game [next Sunday] is building up to be massive,” the Republic of Ireland international said.

Ahead of the game with the Canaries, Connor Wickham returned from his loan spell with Sheffield Wednesday to bolster O’Neill’s attacking opportunities.

The Wearsiders recorded their second draw of the month as Chris Hughton’s Norwich battled for a 1-1 draw at the Stadium of Light.

Wes Hoolahan had given the Canaries a first-half lead before City keeper Mark Bunn was sent off for a deliberate handball.

Gardner equalised from the spot for Sunderland after Sebastien Bassong had handled inside the area.

Midfielder Seb Larsson was bitterly disappointed at the Black Cats’ missed opportunity.

“They were down to ten men fairly early and we got back into the game through Gards’ penalty,” Larsson said. “We’ve got to win the game after that, simple as that."

Wes Brown played 90 minutes for Sunderland’s development squad as the Black Cats drew with Blackpool at the Academy of Light.

And Brown was delighted to play for the first time in 14 months.

“I feel good and have been training for a month now,” the former Manchester United man said.

“I’ll need a few games before I go back in. It helps get your mind focused and gets you back into the swing of things.”

Jordan Pickford extended his loan at Alfreton Town to the end of the season after impressing in his first month at North Street.

The England U19 international kept five clean sheets in 12 appearances as the Reds recorded their highest finish in the club’s history.

Midfielder Adam Reed, who had earlier had a loan spell with Portsmouth, joined York City for the remainder of the season.

And the 21-year-old played a vital role in ensuring the Minstermen’s League Two status; scoring two goals in six games.

John Egan, who missed the majority of the campaign after breaking his leg in a loan spell with Bradford City, signed a one-year contract extension.

The final game of the month was the visit of league leaders Manchester United. In the days leading up to the match, Sunderland were dealt a blow as news emerged that both Fletcher and captain Lee Cattermole would miss the rest of the season.

On the pitch, Titus Bramble’s unfortunate own-goal was the difference between the two sides as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side went on to win their 20th league title.

Winger James McClean took positives from the second-half performance against the champions elect.

“At the break we had a chat about the way we were playing and we regrouped - it worked because I thought we gave a much better second-half performance,” the Republic of Ireland international added.

Following the defeat to the Red Devils, Sunderland announced they would be parting company with manager Martin O’Neill.

Paolo Di Canio was appointed head coach following O’Neill’s departure as the Black Cats looked to ensure their Barclays Premier League status.