Another morning after a Sunderland game and another loss to mull over - this time in a cup tie that ended in a draw and, subsequently, penalties. Apparently we aren’t very good at those. Yet, I can’t help but feel very ‘meh’ about what happened last night.
I actually think the fact that we lost and are out of the cup isn’t the most infuriating thing about the performance - I’m more pissed off by the fact we were so poor in front of goal, and that we were conned out of two blatant penalties by the officials that would have most certainly changed the course of the game.
The effort was there, largely, in my view. The players worked hard - a bare minimum requirement of course, but personally feeling safe in the knowledge that we tried our best is comforting in defeat. It just so happened that our best wasn’t good enough. The fact of the matter is that had Marc McNulty stuck away the two glaring chances he missed at 0-0 that we would have been coasting before Oxford had the chance to go down the other end and put themselves ahead through their fantastic counter-attacking goal.
Max Power was guilty too - putting your shot wide from five yards out when the goal is begging is criminal, but he didn’t miss on purpose. Luck wasn’t on our side, sh*t happens.
Whilst Sunderland’s chance conversion yesterday night was pitiful, we still created good opportunities for our forwards. I feel like I’m seeing progress on that front under Parkinson, whether others are or not.
Even despite the fact we’ve lost three of our last four games in all competitions, I still feel as though there are green shoots of hope to be found in Sunderland’s recent displays - it was only eight days ago that we stuck five past another team in league competition, after all.
Call me an optimist, call me deluded, accuse me of whatever you want - I still feel relatively calm about the situation we find ourselves in. I see the league position and don’t think it’s the complete and utter disaster that some would have you believe. I honestly feel that Phil Parkinson will improve us over the next few months and that, come the end of December, Sunderland will be in a position in the league where we are close enough to the promotion places that we can then go on and improve our squad in January.
The season isn’t over in October. Sunderland have thirty league games left and there are still many twists and turns to be taken. It would have been unfair to expect immediate results from Phil Parkinson because he’s coming into his job in a position whereby he has to try and find a way to fix whatever was perceived to be going wrong under Jack Ross, whilst also allaying any fears that his appointment as manager was the wrong one.
Of course, no Sunderland fan wants to see us lose. The collective thump on the table was heard right around Wearside when Will Grigg stuck his spot kick way over the bar last night because we all obviously care when our team fails - anyone who claims losing doesn’t hurt them is kidding themselves. Yet, had you asked me before the game if I cared about progression into the next round of the League Cup I would have responded with a very blunt ‘no’.
The cup competitions feel currently like a massive distraction from what should be our sole focus this season - improving our league position and getting out of this hellscape of a division. My stomach churned last week when I checked the fixtures and realised that most of Sunderland’s November schedule is eaten up by EFL Trophy games, an FA Cup tie and a game that had to be rearranged because of international call-ups.
Personally, I’d love nothing more than for Sunderland to be able to look and plan ahead now without having to take into account that we have to play games in cup competitions that we either have no chance of winning, or really do not need unless it’s to use them as a glorified training exercise.
Thankfully we are out of the League Cup now. When it comes to Leicester U21s, Gillingham and Scunthorpe I’d be comfortable with us treating those competitions as nothing more than opportunity to hand youngsters first team football and to get players who aren’t playing regularly some minutes on the pitch.
Of course I see the merit in winning games - it breeds confidence. Winning those cup games would be good for morale and confidence, and if we win them then naturally we’ll all be happy about it and will cherry-pick the positives from the performances.
But, I can’t help but feel that by placing so much of our attention - and, in the case of last night for some folk, angst and annoyance - on our participation in anything other than League One is simply misguided.
The bigger picture is that Sunderland must get out of League One, by hook or by crook. Our current league position is not good enough and our immediate and long-term focus MUST be on improving it.
Hopefully the players and manager are over last night’s penalty defeat almost as quickly as it happened - all that should matter to us is beating Southend on Saturday.