A fine summer’s evening provided the backdrop for Sunderland’s opening fixture in the Carabao Cup campaign. Around 1,000 Sunderland fans made the journey to Gigg Lane to witness Sunderland’s first competitive win under Simon Grayson, and they will travel home relatively content at the side’s performance.
Sunderland made several changes to their starting line-up with Adam Matthews, John O’Shea, Darron Gibson and Wahbi Khazri all given the nod from the off. That, in turn, meant a slight change in formation with Khazri playing as an advanced midfielder and Grabban playing as a lone striker.
Sunderland started brightly, with a Grabban header hitting the side netting within the first few minutes of the game. Aiden McGeady then tested former Sunderland player Joe Murphy in the 4th minute after some good play. A long diagonal ball put McGeady into space on the right flank where he drove toward the Bury goal; a neat piece of trickery then saw the Irishman cut inside the box, switching the ball to his right foot, before unleashing a fierce drive that forced the Bury keeper into a good save.
The game continued on at a frantic pace for another couple of minutes before a nasty injury sustained by Bury captain Stephen Dawson brought proceedings to a halt for a little over 5 minutes. Upon restarting the game, both sides played with a little more restraint and the football became scrappy at times.
Bury, sat back and looked to smother the middle of the park in numbers - an attempt at preventing Didier Ndong and Darron Gibson from dictating the tempo of the game. Sunderland countered by playing long diagonals out wide, putting attack-minded players into space in the channels where they could potentially make things happen.
However, a lack of quality in delivery, limited movement from Grabban and Khazri, and a lack of support from midfield meant that despite having the lion’s share of possession and territory, Sunderland simply weren’t able to fashion many clear cut opportunities.
Furthermore, poor distribution from the overlapping full-backs did little to help Sunderland’s cause as Bury seemed content to sit on the edge of their penalty area, absorbing pressure and waiting to try and hit Sunderland on the counter.
Both sides entered the break goalless with Sunderland having had over 60% of the ball in the first half - would Grayson make changes at the break, and would Sunderland up their game in the second half?
After the break, Grayson introduced James Vaughan for Lewis Grabban - a straight swap which perhaps was made with the intent of adding a more central figure to the Sunderland attack.
Minutes later and Sunderland had a chance as Aiden McGeady supplied another superb ball into the box which evaded the Bury defenders preoccupied with former teammate Vaughan. George Honeyman snuck in behind the defence and tried to loop a header over the oncoming keeper, yet his effort lacked the power needed to find the back of the net.
Other than that early chance, the game reverted back to its scrappy nature, and after 58 minutes Grayson decided shake things up replacing Aiden McGeady with young swede Joel Asoro. Again, shortly after the substitution, Sunderland had another decent chance as Vaughan wriggled free from his defender and sent a snapshot toward goal forcing Murphy into a decent save. Frustrations were beginning to rise, however, and Sunderland desperately needed to find that little extra quality from somewhere.
Asoro’s introduction onto the right wing forced Honeyman over to the left hand side of the pitch, and that small tweak proved important as Sunderland broke the deadlock shortly before the 70th minute. Honeyman - who was incredibly energetic and efficient throughout the game - provided the quality that the game so desperately lacked - capping a brilliant performance from the local lad who’s looked good in his opening two games.
Several twists and turns saw Honeyman break free from the attention of two Bury players on the half-way line before driving forward toward goal where he moved the ball wide to Asoro. A blocked cross fell to the feet of Dider Ndong who found Honeyman with a lovely through ball which evaded the Bury defence. Honeyman raced onto the delicate pass and dinked a superb finish over the oncoming keeper. It was a brilliant move from start to finish and will certainly give Grayson food for thought moving forward.
Another nice move followed minutes later with Honeyman heavily involved again. Neat work on the right flank created space for Adam Matthews who found Didier Ndong unmarked about 12 yards from goal. Unfortunately the Gabonese midfielder was unable to apply the finishing touch and blazed over - wasteful to say the least.
The rest of the game fizzled out as Bury simply lacked the quality to trouble Sunderland’s defence who again grew into the game. Lynden Gooch was given time to impress and Joel Asoro missed a tricky chance after being out through by that man Honeyman.
As the final whistle sounded, fans cheered another gutsy, energetic performance from Grayson’s men who battled constantly. There might be a little quality lacking, but the last two performances have shown Sunderland have something far greater than mere skill. They have heart and a desire to fight for the shirt - something the fans can see quite clearly.
This evening’s game wasn’t a classic by any means, but it was a win and gave Grayson time to cast an eye over one or two players ahead of this weekend’s trip to Norwich. Fans will be content on their way home, eager to see if Grayson can continue to improve his men moving forward.