The Sunderland revival under Martin O'Neill gained pace at a rain-swept Wigan Athletic, where a convincing fourth win in the new manager's first six games took the visitors into the top half of the table. The less said about the Wigan mini-revival that seemed on the cards last month the better. Roberto Martínez's side managed to hold both Chelsea and Liverpool on this ground here last month, yet they were ripped to pieces by, among others, Nicklas Bendtner, David Vaughan and James McClean, a young Irishman playing only his second full Premier League game.
O'Neill's patched-up and much changed side scored some excellent goals and were full value for this emphatic away win, fittingly against the side whose surprise victory at the Stadium of Light spelled the end for Steve Bruce. To judge by the music booming out of the away dressing room long after the final whistle, those days are now a distant memory. "It was a fantastic performance and the best result we've had since I arrived," O'Neill said. "Wigan beat us at home, so this was a big, big win for us. I accept the adrenaline was still flowing from the last game, but the energy and the effort were terrific."
Wigan, who could have climbed out of the bottom three with a victory, look nervous again and back to their pre-Christmas worst. They are not quite as good at passing the ball around in their own half as they like to think, and nearly came unstuck on a number of occasions in the opening stages, most notably when Antolín Alcaraz had to make a good block from Stéphane Sessègnon after the home side had carelessly invited the Sunderland forward to advance into their penalty area. Bendtner should have scored from McClean's inviting cross from the left after Kieran Richardson caught Wigan on the counter, yet despite arriving at the near post before Ali al-Habsi the striker could not get a touch on the ball.
As if roused from their complacency Wigan went straight down the field and struck the woodwork twice within 10 seconds. First David Jones put a shot beyond Simon Mignolet that rebounded from his left-hand upright, then with Sunderland still struggling, to recover possession Ben Watson struck his right hand post with a more powerful shot on the turn. The game almost disappeared from view as swirling wind drove curtains of rain across the DW pitch, but in the closing seconds of normal time in the first half it was just possible to make out Jones making room for a shot and Mignolet making a save at the foot of his right hand post.
That was not quite the end of the first period, however, for in the fourth of five added minutes, Sunderland took the lead. Habsi would like to say he was unsighted when Gardner drove a free-kick straight past him from 25 yards after Bendtner was adjudged to have been fouled, though it seemed more likely the Sunderland player took advantage of the wind rather than the rain. Certainly the ball seemed originally to be missing the target before moving sharply to come back in, with the goalkeeper helplessly rooted to the spot.
Things did not improve much for Habsi in the second half. The goalkeeper made a terrific save from McClean from Vaughan's cross after Jones gave the ball away on the edge of his own area, but he could do nothing to keep out the 22-year-old's follow up effort, with Wigan defenders predictably unable to come to his rescue. It was a catastrophic start to the second half for Wigan, though nothing less than Sunderland's summer signing from Derry City deserved . McClean's pace had shown up in the first half, and he collected his first Premier League goal with impressive composure.
Wigan managed to hit back just after the hour through Hugo Rodallega's first goal of the season, as long as Conor Sammon does not dispute it. There was no doubt that the Wigan substitute got the last touch. Sammon had one half chance to equalise but Sunderland pulled away again before long, Bendtner taking advantage of wide open spaces on the Wigan left where Maynor Figueroa had been caught out of position for Sessègnon to slip the ball past Habsi. There was never much chance of Wigan coming back from that, even less when Vaughan hit a joyous fourth past Habsi with a left-foot strike from just outside the area.
"The game ran away from us," Martínez admitted. "The first goal was always going to be vital, we had to take chances after that and it opened up the game. Sunderland were confident after beating City and they have real quality. We need a break. Fortunately it's the FA Cup next."