Four games left. 12 points to play for. Six points from safety.
The campaign for survival was over before it had a chance to begin. Ivo Pinto joined Clive Mendonca and Tim Cahill on the pristine board of ‘opposition players who killed the hope’ and Sunderland fans went home yesterday evening sickened by the thoughts of what is still yet to be confirmed.
We all know the players who are hiding, and we all know the ones who care.
One player who has probably came in for more stick than he’s been due this season is Donald Love. Throughout the season - and, in truth, since he arrived here in the summer of 2016 - the former Manchester United defender’s performances have come into question from sections of the fanbase, but in the past couple of weeks he has shown us what an important player he could be for us going forward.
Apart from the odd mistake borne out of inexperience, Love has shown himself to be a solid reader of the game since coming back into the team and rarely finds himself caught out of position. Whilst Bryan Oviedo and Adam Matthews have provided attacking support in the full-back positions, they’re often susceptible to making poor decisions and leaving us open at the back when opposition teams break away on the counter.
The Scotland youth international has grown in confidence on the back of a string of good performances and, good defending aside, has shown an attacking impetus that provides support for the likes of Lynden Gooch down the right wing.
He’s managed to add another dimension to the Sunderland attack by picking up loose balls and getting them back in the box before we get hit on the counter, and has shown the defensive aggression that Sunderland fans loved in Phil Bardsley but also offers a more calculated and considered approach to the big tackles and confrontation that we thrive on.
Love’s composure in defence is mirrored in the final third when he doesn’t have time to think. His refusal to hide in games and get forward made him an easy scape-goat when attacks broke down in the past, but in recent weeks we’ve seen some of the quality that Love possesses as well as where the real defensive issues lie.
His performances against Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds and Norwich have shown us signs of what he’s made of when he’s confident and knows his role in a team that’s been going after games rather than waiting in fear. He bagged a lovely assist for Paddy McNair’s goal at Elland Road as well as a last-ditch tackle against Norwich - just two examples of how we’re seeing a steady improvement in both his confidence and his reading of the game.
Manchester United academy players always seem to have something about them – a certain technical ability that can sometimes make them seem ahead of their years. Donald Love is still young and the small mistakes pale in comparison to the ignorance of errors committed by our goalkeepers and other more experienced players.
I’ve got absolutely no doubt that a season in League 1 will provide the likes of Love, George Honeyman and Lynden Gooch with the chance to gain solid professional experience in a league that perhaps best suits their abilities at this moment in time.
Hopefully a successful season in the third tier will allow players of this kind to not only grow in confidence and ability, but to fully establish themselves as integral squad members that can form part of our team for many more years to come.