We wanted a reaction and we got it. We wanted positive attack-minded play and we got it. We wanted goals, and boy, did they arrive en-masse. For Phillips, Dichio, Mullin and Butler in August 1998, read Watmore, Maguire, Gooch, Grigg and O’Nien in October 2019. Just like twenty-one years ago, Tranmere Rovers rolled into the SOL - we squared them up and saw them off with easily our best performance of the season.
As a home bow for Phil Parkinson this was mightily impressive, and the perfect way to consign the Wycombe defeat to the dustbin. If that game had been a ‘free swing’ then this was most definitely a pressure match, one we needed to win in order to reignite our season and to give Parkinson an early boost as he attempts to stamp his mark on a squad that is, for my money, currently performing at around 55-60% of its potential.
How would the players deal with the expectation? Would they be able to deliver, or would the negativity of two successive losses swamp them?
A slightly cagey first fifteen minutes aside, this was a much-improved performance from Sunderland, powered by an intensity and a level of sharpness that had been sorely lacking in recent games.
From the outset the team seemed to be playing with the mantra of: ‘get ball, pass ball, move, receive ball again, and drive at the opposition’, instead of: ‘get ball, hesitate, play square pass, and then punt it aimlessly downfield’.
With George Dobson and Max Power both turning in energetic shifts in midfield the platform was laid for our attackers to stretch Tranmere with width and pace. On the touchline, meanwhile, Parkinson cajoled and encouraged relentlessly, displaying the kind of energetic demeanour that Jack Ross was often criticised for lacking, and looking every inch the man in charge. Perhaps he won’t reach Peter Reid-like levels of maniacal energy, but he certainly showed that he intends to grab this managerial opportunity with both hands.
Four of Sunderland’s five goals were superbly worked, from Duncan Watmore’s cool, composed finish from a slide-rule Will Grigg pass which was promptly followed by a twenty-yard Chris Maguire free-kick. By the time Lynden Gooch tapped home the third the atmosphere inside the floodlit SOL changed from expectant to joyous. Finally, the attacking potential of the team was being unlocked, and we were revelling in it.
Individual performances of note came from Watmore, who looked sharp and incisive throughout, Maguire, who, as he so often does in these kinds of matches, upped his game accordingly, and Luke O’Nien who, despite being moved back into his eternally-questioned position in defence, turned in a dynamic and bustling performance, topped off with a sumptuous header to add some gloss to the final scoreline.
Defensively Joel Lynch and Jordan Willis dovetailed nicely, and Lee Burge was once again a solid presence between the sticks.
Paradoxically, this performance also raised some interesting questions.
Can Aiden McGeady now make a case for inclusion in Parkinson’s best eleven? Is Grant Leadbitter now in danger of being consigned to a bench role? And what of Jon McLaughlin’s previously unshakeable presence as first-choice goalkeeper? A settled first eleven will be key going forward, but crucially, Parkinson does have some useful options at his disposal, and if Watmore can build on this performance who’s to say that he can’t reignite his injury-riddled Sunderland career?
As with the AFC Wimbledon game earlier in the season it must be emphasised that Tranmere were frankly woeful, but only the most stone-hearted of cynics would dismiss a 5-0 victory as being not worth celebrating.
We can’t get complacent, but at the same time why not enjoy this victory for what it was? The bad times that you experience as a fanbase make the good moments even sweeter, and this was a very good moment for everyone.
Negatives? Few and far between. Our defending from set-plays is still ropey, and we were perhaps a shade too passive during the first fifteen minutes of the second half, but other than that it was tough to fault Sunderland on a night when they demonstrated that they do have the resilience and the fortitude to rebound from bad results.
Whether this is the ‘new manager bounce’ in action or something more sustained, the upcoming matches will definitely tell us, but having cleared this hurdle there will be a hell of a lot more confidence swirling around the dressing room.
If our season was on the rocks after two bad results then this victory certainly steered the good ship SAFC into somewhat calmer waters. On Saturday we head to Shrewsbury, where if we can replicate something close to this level of performance and take our chances when they arrive, three more valuable points are certainly within our reach.