1-1.... again. Under Jack Ross our calling card remains the wholly unremarkable stalemate.
OK, it was a come-from-behind draw against an Oxford team who had clearly come to mix it physically, but after a summer of murmurings and a significant amount of discontent this was far from the start that we wanted, and in many ways needed.
What we wanted to see was positivity, fluency, and some attacking verve. Unfortunately what we got was a disjointed, unconvincing performance that left the 33,000 fans who turned out feeling less than satisfied.
Defensively, the entire game was an exercise in living on the edge. We simply didn’t look confident and stable, despite adopting the much-talked about ‘three at the back’ system that had been one of the main talking points of pre-season.
Granted, Conor McLaughlin and Jordan Willis were both making their debuts, and given that the defensive trio was completed by the less-than-consistent Tom Flanagan, perhaps it was understandable that nerves crept in, but the need for reinforcements at the back was once again brutally highlighted.
From defence to attack - and in contrast to Marc McNulty, whose home debut was peppered with flashes of promise and some positive intent - Will Grigg’s negative demeanour and total absence of anything contributory of note is becoming a major issue.
System? Tactics? Unhappiness at being at Sunderland? Blame whatever you want. For as long as he continues to underwhelm, the question of ‘did we simply buy a chant?’ isn’t going away. (Ed - nice quiff, though.)
A major issue that held the team back on Saturday is the fact that the speed of our play was, frankly, glacial. We simply didn’t move the ball quickly enough, and when we did try to bring our wing-backs into play there was precious little in the way of end product.
Hume’s performance was less than convincing, and question marks remain about Gooch’s suitability for the role. Luke O’Nien, having filled in as a makeshift defender last season, will surely creep into Ross’s thinking at some stage.
The lack of aggression and intensity in the tackle was also alarming. We stood off Oxford far too often, inviting pressure and allowing them to attack with regularity. Everyone knows that a thunderous tackle will always be well-received by the SOL crowd, but for some reason we just seemed to lack something when it came to the physical side of our game.
Was it a case of first-game nerves? An unwillingness to risk early bookings? Whatever the root cause it was not acceptable, and must be addressed quickly. As we found out last season, shirkers will be brutally exposed in this league.
Positives? There were some. George Dobson brought some physical presence to the midfield and looked reasonably comfortable, whilst the often-divisive Dylan McGeouch looked sharp and was keen to try and make things happen. Trying to crack our midfield puzzle has been an ongoing issue for Ross, but perhaps in this duo we could establish a successful partnership, with the craft of McGeouch dovetailing with the strength of Dobson.
Taking a wider view, the lingering issue is whether these players are hitting a ceiling under Jack Ross. Would another manager be able to bring about a major and long-lasting increase in performance levels? Or would we simply get the dreaded ‘new manager bounce’, followed by a dip in results and find ourselves locked into a cycle of changing managers with regularity until we can finally escape League One?
There is no doubt that, despite the encouraging signs, this opening-day draw has turned up the heat on Jack Ross.
In last year’s curtain-raiser we snatched victory against Charlton to give us the boost that we needed, but this season patience is in far shorter supply and a victory with which to start the season was, by common consent, much-needed.
After one game of the season talk of replacing the manager seems premature, but given that to a large extent Ross is still being judged on last season’s failings only some convincing performances and victories in the games ahead will keep the doubters and the naysayers at bay.