In the lead up to Friday’s opening day clash with Derby, I, like many other fans I’m sure, felt extremely pessimistic. With the match being televised on Sky and the footballing world watching I was terrified of another humiliation. I'd predicted a lacklustre defeat following the drubbing by Celtic a week previously. Much to my surprise, Sunderland's performance actually helped instil a little bit of a feel-good factor back in me. I left the stadium feeling rather positive for the first time in a long while.
Before the game I had predicted that Sunderland would crumble if they went a goal down. With the thrashing by Celtic and the Darron Gibson debacle still raw, I imagined morale must have been quite low.
The game kicked off and Sunderland started well. However, despite dominance in the first ten minutes it seemed to me that Derby scored completely against the run of play.
Galloway was caught out by a cross-field switch and was then skinned on the byline allowing Johnny Russell to get past him and pick out Bradley Johnson in the middle for the goal.
Instead of crumbling, Simon Grayson's side didn't panic and remained composed and hard-working, continuing to play well. Grayson praised his team:
(I’m)Disappointed we conceded the goal but the biggest thing was we didn't crumble. Maybe this time last year the team might have gone under but they got back on the front foot and asked lots of questions.
Although Galloway was at fault for the opening goal and looked uncomfortable in pre-season, he grew into the game and gained confidence as events unfolded. The left-back also looked decent going forward in support of Aiden McGeady.
McGeady looks very good at Championship level and could prove to be a very astute signing given the small fee Sunderland paid for the Irishman. The winger managed to both cut inside and travel down the wing with the ball whilst throwing a few fan pleasing tricks for good measure. His crossing also looked exceptional and he proved a handful all night. He faded towards the end of the game but hasn't played much in pre-season. A full ninety minutes will have done McGeady the world of good, I'm looking forward to watching his silky skills this season.
Another of Grayson's new singings, Lewis Grabban, equalised for Sunderland from the spot just before half-time. Fully deserved too, given the Wearsiders dominant play. Grabban hit the woodwork in the second half with a good shot, his general work rate pleased many in the crowd.
The Grabban chance was created by Lee Cattermole who worked his socks off and put in man of the match performance. The skipper forced an excellent save out of Scott Carson in the first half. Cattermole, alongside his midfield partner N'Dong, did very well to break up Derby's play and nullify the threat of Tom Huddlestone.
George Honeyman also presents another reason for Mackems to be positive; the little lad worked and battled on the right wing all night. The midfielder has his detractors but proved that he has potential to develop into a good player for Sunderland at this level and, given enough playing time I can envision real quality payoff from his terrier-like approach.
Chris Martin and David Nugent had chances to win it for the Rams and we must remember that Derby are an experienced Championship team with some good players at that level: their side included Andre Wisdom and ex-England international’s Scott Carson and Tom Huddelstone. To take a point from Derby in a game in which we trailed early on and knowing Sunderland had real chances to win the game, has to be seen as a positive. As Grayson put it in his post-match interview:
It is going to be a slow process but we've got to take positive steps and tonight we gave ourselves the platform to build up.
I haven't got a magic wand, I can't suddenly turn this club into a real positive, happy-go-lucky club playing free-flowing football - they've got to earn the right but it's about taking those small steps.
My only real criticism of Grayson on the day is that he failed to use any of his three substitutions. In the closing stages it could be argued that Sunderland could have done with added quality and energy, Gooch and especially Khazri could have provided this in abundance. But he can perhaps be forgiven for his refusal to upset the balance of an already fragile team, when to go for a point could have seen us lose everything we’d worked for. Above all though, it was refreshing to see that Grayson was genuinely mortified when Sunderland conceded. There was no Moyes-esqe bravado.
The game against Derby represents a small step forward - the players' good graft and grit proved that they are responding to Grayson and his attempts to implement a clear pattern of play and assert his own tactics. As fans we must give Grayson time to work, and accept that things aren't going to change overnight. Add in to the equation that Sunderland still have Watmore, Oviedo, McNair, Maja and Rodwell to return and there's the makings of a good Championship side there. So far Grayson appears to be ideally suited to making them tick.