The latest installment of one of League One’s more unorthodox rivalries ended with a Sunderland victory and an early blow landed against one of the teams tipped to be challenging for promotion when spring rolls around again. Portsmouth arrived at the Stadium of Light, no doubt eager to settle old scores, following their playoff semi-final defeat and all of the accompanying shenanigans. Could we finally ignite our season with a victory, or would our fondness for a draw come back to haunt us yet again?
The contrast between the first and second-half performances could scarcely have been starker. Sunderland’s opening forty-five minutes was stodgy, slow, passive, and alarmingly disjointed. We weren’t aggressive and, as with Oxford, we seemed content to invite Portsmouth to attack us.
In many ways, it was a typical League One slugfest, a classic ‘middle of the park’ affair where quality was almost non existent and four passes in a row would’ve been considered top-class. After twenty-two minutes, the gutless concession of Portsmouth’s opening goal following a defensive mix-up quickly set everyone on edge.
A slow start, followed by the loss of a goal. Here we go again.
Except it wasn’t. Sunderland may be many things under Jack Ross, but the one we don’t do is crumble. We conceded. We regrouped, and we hit back. Both of Sunderland’s goals, a thumping header from Willis (it turns out that defenders DO still go in ‘where it hurts’ these days) and a Maguire tap-in following a driving McGeady run, were well-worked, and just reward for the fortitude that we showed.
Our second-half performance was much, much better. We played with more aggression, finally started to ping the ball around nicely and stood firm against the physical approach of Portsmouth, who seemed content to drag us into more of a battle than a football match.
One major positive to emerge from this match was the newly-established central defensive partnership of Alim Ozturk and Jordan Willis. Willis had endured quite an edgy start to his Sunderland career, but the presence of the big Turk alongside him seemed to have a calming influence, and he responded by turning in a performance of real composure.
Assuming that the three central defenders experiment has now been ditched for the time being at least, a good, solid back four could definitely be the way to go.
Reinforcements, particularly at full back, are still needed, however. Shoehorning Luke O’Nien into an unnatural role, albeit one he performed well in last season, is surely not the way to go again.
We did not look rock-solid defensively, and Portsmouth did keep us on edge at times, but there is undoubtedly something to build on, and with Jon McLaughlin turning in a much better performance between the sticks, the entire picture begins to change.
Midfield, meanwhile, continues to be a major bone of contention. Leadbitter’s selection over Dobson was initially something of a head-scratcher given Dobson’s promising form since his arrival, but in fairness the Leadbitter/Power axis was moderately successful - even if Leadbitter did almost provide a contender for ‘Most Epic Sunderland Own Goal’ with a stunning diving header.
Long-term, it is still tempting to see McGeough/Power and Dobson as our first-choice midfield partnership, but on the other hand needs must, and perhaps Leadbitter’s experience and nous was exactly what we needed for this one, even if the ball wasn’t zipping through midfield at Mach 3.
As for our forwards - McNulty’s intelligent off the ball running brought others into play, McGeady shone in patches, while Chris Maguire was his usual all-action self. Ross’s substitutions have often been lambasted, but the second-half introduction of Charlie Wyke was a shrewd move. His physical presence put the Portsmouth defenders onto the back foot, and he seems to have a little more spring in his step. It was also good to see the much-maligned Lynden Gooch playing with some spark and some purpose.
A victory, then, against one of the supposed favourites for promotion. Not comfortable, not thrilling, but a win nevertheless. There are still questions to be answered and problems to be solved but this was without question the first major test of the league campaign, and one that we passed in ultimately impressive fashion.
If a winning run can now be established, pessimism may well turn to optimism.