Sunderland 4 Stoke 0
Steve Bruce heaved a huge sigh of relief as Sunderland demolished Stoke to claim their first victory of the season.
The Black Cats roared into a 3-0 lead within 28 first-half minutes to lay the foundation for just their third Barclays Premier League win of 2011 at the Stadium of Light.
Titus Bramble’s first strike for the club gave them a fifth-minute advantage and an own goal from former Newcastle team-mate Jonathan Woodgate six minutes later left Stoke, who were unbeaten in nine games in all competitions before today, in deep trouble.
Craig Gardner made it 3-0 with a deflected shot and Sebastian Larsson curled home a fine 58th-minute free-kick to leave those who had stayed away – the match was watched by a crowd of just 32,296 – regretting their decision.
Sunderland, who had scored only twice in their previous five games, were simply irresistible, significantly with seven of Bruce’s 11 summer signings in the starting line-up.
Perhaps fittingly on the day of the Great North Run, Bruce’s insistence that the season was, to paraphrase, a half-marathon and not a sprint was borne out in style as his side made the most of early chances for the first time in the campaign.
They were helped in no small part by some uncharacteristically poor defending and a little good fortune.
Sunderland had slipped to second bottom yesterday, but they needed just five minutes to spot a route out of the mire.
Black Cats old boy Rory Delap could not cut out Larsson’s corner at the near post and when the ball fell to Bramble, his low shot squirmed away from keeper Asmir Begovic and trickled over the line to get the home side off to the perfect start.
Things got even better within six minutes when Woodgate, in his desperation to beat Nicklas Bendtner to David Vaughan’s curling cross, could only head the ball over the stranded Begovic and into his own net.
Bruce’s men were brimming with confidence, with Vaughan in particular justifying the manager’s decision to leave skipper Lee Cattermole sitting on the bench.
A Stoke side featuring eight changes to the one which drew 1-1 in Kiev in midweek looked strangely toothless, although Simon Mignolet had to pull off a fine one-handed save to claw Marc Wilson’s 16th-minute free-kick out of his top corner.
But their hopes of launching a comeback were dealt a further blow with 28 minutes gone when Gardner collected Bendtner’s pass and saw his shot loop up off Ryan Shawcross and sail over the stranded Begovic into the top corner.
Peter Crouch, who was jeered throughout by the home fans after rejecting Sunderland’s advances for the second time last month, headed straight at Mignolet three minutes before the break.
But in the meantime, Stephane Sessegnon had forced a good save from Begovic and Larsson had volleyed wide with the home side totally dominant.
Stoke returned knowing they needed to reduce the deficit quickly but Matthew Etherington could not climb high enough after Crouch had headed Jon Walters’ 49th-minute cross back across goal.
And the game was effectively over nine minutes later when, after Sessegnon had been tripped by Robert Huth, Larsson dispatched the resulting free-kick from 20 yards with Begovic once again stranded.
The arrival of another pantomime villain in the shape of former Sunderland man Kenwyne Jones as a 61st-minute replacement for Cameron Jerome gave the home fans further opportunity to raise their voices as the game ebbed tamely towards what was by now a foregone conclusion.
Bendtner might have added his name to the scoresheet with 11 minutes to go, but he failed to connect with the ball as he attempted to back-heel Kieran Richardson’s cross past Begovic at the near post.
Crouch was guilty of a more glaring miss at the other end four minutes later when he could not get a touch with the goal at his mercy, much to the amusement of the home fans.
Begovic spared his side further punishment with a solid 89th-minute save from Gardner, but the damage had been done long before.