Prestige. Glamour. Heart-racing excitement.
All things that you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with an FA Cup tie against Mansfield, as Sunderland’s 2020/2021 cup campaign began in earnest on Saturday.
Frankly, this game could have been seen as an unwelcome distraction, but winning breeds confidence, as the old mantra goes, so this was a game that should certainly should not have been treated as an afterthought.
Pre-match, a lot of the discussion centered around Phil Parkinson’s team selection. In theory, this was the perfect chance to make use of his wider squad, and to promote some of the players from our improving under-23’s squad into the first team picture.
This in turn would give further validity to his decision to freeze out Aiden McGeady, and to prove that he does have genuine faith in the players coming through our academy.
With that in mind, it was a welcome sight to see Jack Diamond given a starting berth, and Elliot Embleton and Dan Neil a place on the bench.
Overall, it was definitely a selection that suggested that the game was being taken seriously, and with Will Grigg up front, it represented a chance for the much-maligned striker to breathe some new life into his Sunderland career. With fixtures coming thick and fast, it made sense for Parkinson not to run the risk of burning out his frontline first-teamers, but the players selected still had to do the business.
The first half was the classic Sunderland mixture of good, bad, and comically poor, all of which I’ll highlight here.
Starting with the good - Callum MacFadzean delivered an enterprising, encouraging performance, peppered with with some excellent deliveries and energy down the left. OK, he wasn’t a marquee signing when he joined, but he really posed a potent threat, and could well provide Denver Hume with some competition in the months ahead. Jack Diamond also impressed as the half progressed, as he always looked to be positive, and to make things happen. Add a better final ball, and he could become the kind of dynamic provider we are crying out for.
As for the bad? Max Power and George Dobson were almost anonymous in midfield, with far too many sideways passes and a general lack of incisiveness at key moments.
I’ve previously written about our worrying lack of speed in transitional play, particularly through the middle, and this was starkly evident again. As for the comically poor, Danny Graham hit the post twice, first from a scuffed shot, and then when, inexplicably, he managed to head the ball against the opposition crossbar from a colossal three inches out.
Mansfield, meanwhile, were game, and certainly weren’t sitting back and trying to play for a draw, with George Lapslie in particular causing us issues, as Dion Sanderson in particular endured a rather shaky time at the back.
0-0 at half time, then, and suffice it to say, this was not the kind of businesslike display that was expected. It was slack, sloppy, and generally laboured.
We needed a good start to the second half, and typically, we didn’t get it. Barely five minutes had elapsed when an accurate cross from the right wasn’t dealt with by Sanderson, and Lapslie bulleted a header past Remi Matthews.
It was the punishment that our sloppy start to the second half warranted, as we simply didn’t fulfil our basic defensive duties, and Mansfield capitalized gladly. 0-1 down, and the frustration was simmering.
The remainder of the second half was, largely, a grind. Chances were few and far between, despite Diamond continuing to impress with his skill and pace, but Sunderland couldn’t claw their way back onto level terms. The introduction of Elliot Embleton was a positive, but by and large, it was an extremely forgettable, timid second forty-five minutes.
Quite frankly, too many of our players looked as if they simply wanted to get this game out of the way, regardless of the result, and that’s an attitude I’ve seen far too often during Sunderland cup games in recent years.
Even in games that you might not prioritize, there has to be a basic standard set by the players, and this was way, way below the required level.
The FA Cup odyssey has ended early, then, and in extremely meek, underwhelming fashion. With only the Papa John’s Trophy left in cup terms, far more focus can now be directed towards the league, and if Phil Parkinson wants to keep the doubters at bay, he’s going to have to build a significant winning run in the league. Timid cup exits are not new, but they should still hurt, regardless, and this was certainly another one to add to a very lengthy list.