Let me begin by stating the blindingly obvious.
This was a game that should not have taken place.
No fewer than eight of Sunderland’s first-teamers were affected by Covid-19, and only the ongoing idiocy of the EFL resulted in the match going ahead.
Ordinarily, with a full-strength squad, you would’ve backed Lee Johnson’s team, fresh from a 4-0 walloping of Lincoln, to negate the threat of AFC Wimbledon and continue their recent revival in similarly exciting fashion.
As it was, his best-laid plans were shredded only hours before kick-off, and the game suddenly took on a very different complexion.
Still, it was a case of ‘needs must’, as the likes of Aiden O’Brien, George Dobson and Will Grigg were pressed into action against the Dons. And with a bench that featured exciting talents such as young striker Mitch Curry, it was by no means a glaringly weak team that took to the field.
Indeed, it represented a good chance for some fringe players to show that they could contribute meaningfully, and for the young players to show Lee Johnson that they can become central to his plans.
We started the first half in reasonably positive style, with some neat passing and a decent level of intensity. It quickly became obvious that Wimbledon were content to sit in, waste time, and generally make it as awkward as they could for us (perhaps in tribute to the halcyon days of the Crazy Gang).
At times, we did look bereft of ideas, with an over-reliance on long balls, and very little in the way of cutting edge or the incisive pass that could unlock their defence. As such, clear-cut chances were reasonably sparse.
Elliot Embleton stung the keeper’s palms with a snapshot from close-range, and Will Grigg couldn’t make meaningful contact after a wicked cross from Conor McLaughlin, but overall, it was a tale of frustration in and around the Wimbledon penalty box. Even the tormentor of Lincoln, Jack Diamond, couldn’t quite make the same impact, being well marshalled by the away defence.
Just before half time, a sting in the tail arrived.
A clumsy, ill-timed challenge from Callum McFadzean resulted in a Wimbledon spot-kick, which was duly converted by Joe Piggott.
All of a sudden, the shadow of the Wigan abomination was hovering over the SOL.
We’d seen this movie before: dominate possession, don’t score, and then get caught out at the other end. Another half-time deficit and Lee Johnson’s armoury of buzzwords and catchphrases was doubtless being dipped into, or perhaps he’d ditched them for more traditional footballing phrases – hopefully with a sprinkling of expletives – to spark the team into life.
The second half began with Lynden Gooch replacing the ineffective Dobson, but initially, things didn’t really take a major upturn.
There was plenty of graft but also plenty of nervy moments, as we struggled to break down Wimbledon’s admirable resistance.
Eventually, the breakthrough finally came, with Bailey Wright getting a somewhat fortunate break of the ball, and volleying us back to 1-1 with a very smart finish. Not the man you’d expect to get on the scoresheet, but given the situation, it really didn’t matter. We just had to claw our way back into the game somehow, and the Australian, who had a very solid game, was there when it mattered.
Ultimately, that was the high point of the second half, because Wright’s goal aside, there was little to shout about from a Sunderland perspective.
While the likes of Dion Sanderson did their cause no harm at all, there were some reasonably forgettable performances as well, with Elliot Embleton looking off-colour, and O’Brien offering very little of note either.
Certainly, Lee Johnson will have used tonight as a fact-finding mission, to see who is capable of stepping up, and who lacks the characteristics that he’s looking for.
In that sense, he’ll surely have found it a worthwhile exercise.
A useful point, given the circumstances, or another missed opportunity to claw back some ground on our fellow promotion-chasers?
The league position (six points off second with a game in hand) would suggest the former, but there may well be a nagging sense for some fans that, even with so many players absent, we let a really good chance slip.
And that’s something that’s happened all too often already this season.