The pressure was building. One week prior we’d gone to Bolton - a team with well-documented troubles of their own - and turned in a desperately poor performance, embellished only by the scraping of a draw courtesy of a late penalty. Jack Ross was right up against it. The mood was negative. Was Ross on the brink? Could he ride out this latest storm of dissatisfaction?
Cue Sheffield United away. We went to Yorkshire, played with freedom, and secured an impressive win. This at least meant that we could line up the weekend meeting with MK Dons with a sliver of momentum behind us.
So, did we rise to the challenge, or did the players fail to deliver the response we expected? Overall I’d argue the former. This was a good team effort held together by some eye-catching individual performances, and a vast improvement on the shambles of Bolton.
Yes, MK Dons were extremely limited opposition, who seemed content to try and grind us down and eke out a draw, but that’s League One. Find a way to win, even against the least ambitious teams.
After a first half during which we started slowly (I lost count of the amount of unsuccessful long balls we fired forwards), the Lads gradually upped their game, and made a rapid-fire two goal breakthrough.
However, the second half was much more tense. For whatever reason, we seemed to lose control of the game, and that familiar feeling of anxiety descended into the stadium. MK Dons’ goal, a result of an error from Jon McLaughlin, felt somewhat inevitable, but to the team’s credit, we did defend the lead with some gritty determination and a good deal of resilience.
It was reasonably easy to find positives in the wake of this game. Defensively, Sunderland looked more composed and solid than we have for some time - aided by the presence of home debutants Laurens De Bock and Joel Lynch. Whilst it is true that neither player could be classed as a ‘marquee’ signing, and nor did they arrive at the SOL with ringing endorsements from fans of their former clubs, both men turned in impressive performances.
Furthermore, Willis and Lynch look to have all the makings of a good, solid partnership, and with De Bock (hopefully) set for a good run in the team and Conor McLaughlin slowly finding his form, our first-choice backline may well soon find itself settled, which will be a major relief.
In the middle of the park, Max Power burnished his reputation with yet another fabulous goal, a vicious whipped finish that will slot beautifully into this season’s highlight reel, whilst the ever-polarising Dylan McGeouch did his own reputation no harm with another solid display.
With Luke O’Nien finally freed from the shackles of his stopgap defensive role, he turned in a bustling, energetic performance that showed why he could be a more-than-useful attacking weapon as we move forwards. This guy clearly loves the club, and boy, does it show. Crucially, we now have options aplenty in this area, depending on the system and the formation we choose to utilise, and that is encouraging.
With our midfield and defence showing signs of taking shape, attack remains our key area of concern. Against MK, Charlie Wyke offered us some good physical presence and some solid hold-up play, but little in the way of goal threat, whilst Will Grigg barely had time to make an impact when he finally appeared. Marc McNulty’s return to fitness will be crucial, and it can’t come quickly enough.
Negatives? The issue of captaincy, given the commanding performance of stand-in skipper Willis, and the fact that Grant Leadbitter is surely now headed for a substitutes’ role, is somewhat fuzzy.
Furthermore, Jon McLaughlin, after yet another unconvincing display, must surely make way for Lee Burge?
And yes, a (dis)honourable mention goes to the referee, who nobly maintained the abysmally low standards set by most officials in this league, with a truly dismal performance.
It had been a tough week, but we emerged from it (reasonably) unscathed. Four league points, two impressive debuts, and a last-sixteen berth in the League Cup. Sunderland. Never dull, is it?