STEPHANE SESSEGNON grabbed all the headlines in the weekend match reports of this game, and rightly so.
The obvious line for reporters was always that of Sunderland’s former favourite coming back to haunt them on his debut for his new club.
The £6million man, the Baggies’ record signing, provided the key moment of the match – pouncing in the 20th minute to put his under-pressure side ahead against his former employers, completely swinging momentum his new side’s way in the process.
Given the cloud under which he had left Wearside at the start of the month, and the critical verdict of his ex-boss Paolo Di Canio in the days leading up to the clash, Sessegnon’s display – good, bad or indifferent – was inevitably going to be the focus of interest.
And it was to his eternal credit that, out of respect to the away fans at the opposite end of the ground who until so recently used to cheer him, he chose not to celebrate the goal.
Part of him must have been sorely tempted to do cartwheels and handstands.
But, as the dust settles on the game and the result, the bigger picture here is not of a striker vindicated, not of the rights and wrongs of selling him; but of a club emasculated, of a feeble, uncertain Sunderland already in early season crisis.
And by today, the agenda had moved on to Di Canio’s sacking in the wake of one bad result too many
This game encapsulated all the problems that have car-wrecked Sunderland’s progress, or lack of it so far, across the opening five league games and led directly to the Italian’s departure.
The two most glaring shortcomings of his failed side were the team’s powder-puff attack – Sunderland did not manage a single shot on target in the whole of the game; and its porous defence, which conceded three goals for the third consecutive game.
These were not problems much in evidence in the opening few minutes at the Hawthorns.
In what would be his last pre-match Press conference as Sunderland head coach, Di Canio had called on his side to start the game brightly and they did just that, boosted by four changes – three of them obvious, one of them a surprise.
Skipper John O’Shea returned from suspension and Emanuele Giaccherini from injury, while Craig Gardner, a goal-scoring substitute against Arsenal the previous week, won a start.
Valentin Roberge, Charis Mavrias and David Vaughan made way.
The fourth change, though, was a talking point, with Fabio Borini preferred up front to Jozy Altidore – the American having to be content with a place on the bench alongside Lee Cattermole, who was making his first appearance in Sunderland’s matchday squad since February.
Albion gave debuts to Sessegnon and on-loan Marseille midfielder Morgan Amalfitano, and the contributions of both were to be decisive by the final whistle.
But, in the early stages, Sunderland caught the eye more, passing the ball around confidently and looking to make the most of a slightly nervous Albion sidewho had lost both their previous home league games without scoring.
Albion went close with a third-minute cross from Nicolas Anelka, on the right, which was headed out by Ondrej Celustka, at the far post, for a corner.
Sunderland, though, began to dominate, Borini forcing a free-kick which Giaccherini drove straight into the wall and then followed up with two poor corners from the left.
This was to be the pattern of Sunderland’s play, impressive in possession, marshalled by the composed Ki Sung-Yeung, but failing ever to find a successful final ball.
And their fragility was underlined by keeper Keiren Westwood, who was caught in no-man’s land on a long ball up to the 18-yard-box and almost embarrassed as Anelka plunged in and threatened to grab a soft goal.
Sunderland were still looking pretty well set though when they conceded from Albion’s first real attack, which was started and finished by Sessegnon.
The former Black Cat ushered the ball out to the right wing for Amalfitano to put in a dipping cross which Scott Sinclair glanced goalwards at the near post.
The ball bounced off Westwood’s midriff on the line but straight towards the unmarked Sessegnon, 10 yards out, directly in front of goal, who steered it coolly into the bottom corner, to the keeper’s left.
That goal, which meant Sessegnon had now scored in the last three meetings between the two teams, did more than simply put Sunderland behind, it almost unhinged them.
Visibly, you could see the confidence draining out of the side, and it took them until the 27th minute to respond, when Adam Johnson saw his fierce, low shot deflected inches wide by Liam Ridgewell.
Albion, though, were now in the ascendancy with Sessegnon a thorn in Sunderland’s side – Jack Colback and Ki both earning bookings as they tried to stop him from spinning away from them on the attack.
Sunderland just could not get going again, showing no sense of team spirit, unity or understanding and it was no surprise when Giaccherini was replaced by Mavrias at half-time.
In truth, two or three others could not have complained if they had failed to appear for the second half.
Encouragingly, Sunderland improved, reminding us that, with only one goal in it, the game was far from over yet.
Mavrias was involved in that improvement and it was he who won a 50th minute free-kick from which Craig Gardner genuinely tested the Albion defence.
Sunderland dominated the opening 10 minutes of the second period but the longer they continued without testing keeper Boaz Myhill, the more Albion grew into the game, Sessegnon flashing a rising shot over Westwood’s crossbar from the left of goal on the hour, after a couple of decent passing moves from Albion.
Borini had floated like a butterfly, but, unfortunately, stung like one too and was replaced by Altidore, who was involved in his second luckless incident in a week in the 64th minute.
His speculative effort at goal seemed to strike a defender’s arm on the way through and the striker – denied a clear goal against Arsenal the previous week, immediately appealed for a penalty.
A generous decision going their way might have made all the difference to struggling Sunderland, but things rarely go your way when you’re at the bottom of the table and Staffordshire referee Phil Dowd was having none of it.
And as if to underline that Sunderland’s luck was out, substitute Lee Cattermole’s starting of a move which saw Johnson cross from the right in the 69th minute resulted in Steven Fletcher meeting the ball and, rather than scoring, miss the target completely and dislocate his shoulder as he fell.
With Di Canio having brought on all three subs, 1-0 down Sunderland were doomed to play the last 20 minutes with 10 men.
Not long after Fletcher’s departure, it was 2-0.
Amalfitano, the creator of the first goal, was also architect of the second, turning Colback and Mavrias inside out before crossing to the far post.
Westwood got a glove to the ball, but it was not a powerful contact and the ball dropped to Ridgewell, on the left of goal, who clipped a rising shot over the advancing keeper.
Sunderland sagged further after that and chased shadows before Sessegnon was substituted in the 88th minute to rapturous applause from his new admirers.
Five minutes were added on at the end which Sunderland could have done without and that was just enough time for Amalfitano to deepen the humiliation, receiving a smart pass from Victor Anichebe to zero in on goal from the right and drive a shot through Westwood from a narrow angle.
Sunderland fans behind the goal were distraught, as they had every right to be.
Neither results nor performances have given them any cause for optimism so far this season.
On the eve of the season, Di Canio had promised them “a season without suffering, unlike previous years.”
As of the weekend, he had delivered exactly the opposite.
And that was what last night sealed his fate.