Black Cats search for a hero
KEVIN PHILLIPS returned to the Stadium of Light and was serenaded by the Sunderland fans who idolised him in his goalplundering pomp.
Derby’s first-team coach – the bookies’ favourite to manage the Black Cats at one stage this summer – gave the Wearside faithful a wave when the cry of ‘Super Kev’ went up during Friday’s televised EFL curtainraiser.
They need a new hero now after Jermain Defoe – another goal-poacher par excellence – departed for Bournemouth following relegation last season.
And Simon Grayson, Sunderland’s choice as manager after David Moyes’ resignation, says the main-man mantle is up for grabs – a challenge to on-loan Cherries striker Lewis Grabban and frontline partner James Vaughan.
Grabban levelled with a penalty three minutes before the break after Sunderland fell behind in only the 11th minute in their first game as a Championship club for ten years.
Grayson, who is chasing the loan signing of Aston Villa striker Ross McCormack, who he worked with at Leeds, said: “We said to the players before the game, you’ve got the shirt now, make sure you’ve got it for a long time.
“Those will be the basics of what the players need to do. If they’re playing well, they’ll keep it. The fans will take to players if they work and score goals, make tackles, and put their bodies on the line.
“Hopefully over the next few weeks we’ll have a group of 20odd players who supporters will feel an affiliation towards.’’
Sunderland recovered from a 5-0 home pre-season thrashing by Celtic, a result that prompted Darron Gibson to launch a drunken, expletive-laden tirade that found its way onto social media, claiming some team- mates lacked commitment. Grayson said: “There’s been a lot made of the build-up to the season. You’re first in the shop window and you have a huge amount of scrutiny on such a big club with what has happened previously, and what has happened in the past week.
“But it’s out of the way now, we’ve shown a lot of good character which we expect the group to carry through the season.’’
An old face came back to haunt Grayson when Derby struck. Johnny Russell beat Brendan Galloway, and when the right-wing ball found Bradley Johnson – who played under Grayson at Leeds – the midfielder finished coolly.
Sunderland, with skipper Lee Cattermole a midfield driving force, replied after Jacob Butterfield was penalised for handball. Vaughan failed with two spot-kicks in pre-season and Grabban was entrusted with slotting past Scott Carson.
After the break, Grabban hit the woodwork, but Chris Martin let Sunderland off the hook when he lifted the ball over with only Jason Steele to beat.
Derby boss Gary Rowett said: “Sunderland’s result against Celtic was probably bad for us because it was going to renew their focus. Even if there’s a bit of discontent, in the first game of the season players are always going to play, whether that’s in front of the cameras to get away or whatever.’’
Asked of his own transfer plans, Rowett quipped: “When you say moving, if I’m in a car on the motorway, I’m doing about 15mph at the moment – but I’m hoping to break a hundred and the police don’t catch me!”
SPOT ON: Lewis Grabban scores Sunderland’s first goal of the season from the penalty spot past Derby goalkeeper Scott Carson