Gary Bennett posed the question to me before kick-off at Barnsley, “Would you take a point?” Most I think would admit they would, because it seemed to me the critical issue was not losing at Barnsley.
A defeat at Oakwell would have been potentially fatal for Sunderland’s automatic promotion prospects with Barnsley having a relatively benign run in. They have played Luton, Portsmouth and Charlton home and away and with their impressive home form - and the fact that they’re undefeated in the League since December 8th - you wouldn’t bet on them slipping up more than once, or even at all, before their last game of the season at Bristol Rovers.
Interestingly and tellingly is that their last league defeat was at Wycombe Wanderers, who adopted the same tactics against the Tykes they had used against Sunderland.
While a draw maintained the status quo the game in hand now becomes critical, if it wasn’t before. Benno is insistent there will be twists and turns - and he may well be right.
It’s hard to see where, though, because if there are any frailties between Barnsley and Sunderland I fear they lie with Sunderland and not the former. Sunderland face some potentially hazardous away matches with Accrington Stanley, Peterborough and Fleetwood uppermost in my mind.
Unquestionably Sunderland have improved since the 4-2 defeat of Gillingham. Even at Adams Park Sunderland’s resilience resurfaced, and there is a sense the team is finding its feet again for the final matches of the season.
But, there are areas of concern which broadly summed up are in attack and midfield. Other teams are exploiting Sunderland in those areas, raising their games and suffocating Jack Ross’ side to a degree that makes winning games akin to winning a Cup Final every time they take to the field - and as Wycombe illustrated, it comes at a cost. The loss of Chris Maguire was a big blow and the absence of Duncan Watmore will be felt.
George Honeyman missing three matches is not insignificant either as his return to the team has coincided with its upturn in form.
I’m not sure what conclusions can really be drawn from the Barnsley match. I always felt it would probably end a draw, with both sides cancelling each other out, and the weather conditions aside that’s largely what they did.
The more telling matches will be the likes of Walsall at home. Sunderland have played the Saddlers three times and failed to win any. Are they this season’s Millwall? I have a nagging fear they may be.
At least Sunderland head into the fixture in full knowledge of Barnsley’s result at Doncaster Rovers on the Friday night. Barnsley have coped admirably with the loss of their key players, none more notable than Keiffer Moore, and Sunderland have to now show they can respond with a similar durability. Sunderland then sit out the following two weekend’s fixtures before heading into their frenzy of re-arranged matches, and it’s a fair assumption they will need to win them all.
Sunderland are a good team. Of that I am in no doubt.
What they now have to prove is that they ARE better than the teams around them.
They have to - as those teams have done - beat the strugglers, beat the mid-tablers and win their home matches. Portsmouth eked out a 3-2 win at Walsall. Barnsley won 3-0 at Southend with ten men. Luton went to a resurgent Bradford and won 1-0.
All three are showing promotion form.
It’s now as much about mentality as talent, and if there is one significant strength in the Sunderland team it is their never say die attitude. I have always felt Sunderland will go up automatically and, even now with the odds starting to favour Luton and Barnsley, I think Gary Bennett may be right.
Barnsley have drawn four of their last nine and if that trajectory is maintained they will drop points. That is when Sunderland have to pounce. Jack Ross was strident before the Barnsley match that Sunderland are a good team and, when they play well, are the best in the division.
Now the time has come to deliver on that assertion.