As the darkness began to descend over the Stadium of Light on Saturday, 30,000+ fans were wracked with tension. The match had been fraught, Ipswich perhaps believed that they could nick a victory, and the clock was ticking.
As we approached eighty minutes played it seemed as though three precious points, and maybe our automatic promotion hopes were disappearing down the Wear. We’d hit the post, the bar, and been robbed by the linesman’s flag.
Here we go again. Another opportunity squandered.
And then, as Ipswich attempted to deal with the twin threats of the workmanlike Charlie Wyke and the recently-introduced Kyle Lafferty, a long ball was played forward, a foul was not given, and BANG! - up stepped Chris Maguire to lash home what to proved be a priceless winner. ‘The King’ had delivered once again.
The tension was finally released; the sense of relief palpable.
After the tame efforts of Fratton Park, and the subsequent defeat that followed, this was one of those occasions where the end result was far more important than the aesthetics of victory, where style and swagger were of far less significance than being on the right side of the scoreboard. To that end, it was mission accomplished.
Was this victory deserved? Did we get out of jail? That depends on your perspective. Our first half performance had been stodgy, disjointed, and underwhelming to say the least. Stray passes and shaky defending were very much the order of the day.Ipswich were finding far too much space in behind our defence, stretching us with pace and crisp passing football. We were too passive, too standoffish, and they sensed it.
It was deeply frustrating.
After the break, a different Sunderland team emerged - one being marshalled by Jordan Willis and led by Max Power. Instead of the ball going aimlessly long, it was now being zipped around nicely and the pressure on the away team was ramped up.
With Lynden Gooch exerting a greater influence as the half unfolded, and Denver Hume doing his level best to stretch Ipswich on the flank, we started to look much more of a threat. Gooch himself should’ve scored, after a mesmeric mazy run that ended with the ball thudding against the post, which was followed several minutes later by a shot from Bailey Wright which cannoned back off the bar. The chances were being created, but we simply weren’t taking them.
And then came the moment of the game. On Thursday, I tweeted that we needed to see the best of Chris Maguire if we were to stand a chance of winning the game. Well, it came true for at least forty-five minutes on Saturday.
After struggling in the first half and failing to make much of an impact, he was like an annoying housefly in Ipswich’s front room in the second half: always available, always trying to make things happen. When he got the job as manager, I didn’t believe that Maguire would be a Phil Parkinson-type player. I was wrong. He’s now central to all that is good about this team.
On a critical note, George Dobson is still experiencing a dip in form, and our lack of blistering pace upfront remains a nagging concern. I suspect that Lafferty might well replace Wyke as our target man for Tuesday, but perhaps Antoine Semenyo could be the ace up Phil Parkinson’s sleeve, the kind of player who can make incisive runs and keep an opposition defence guessing. The visit of Rochdale, under the lights, could be the perfect stage for Semenyo to announce himself to the Sunderland fans.
Speaking of on-field personnel, Parkinson should shuffle his pack for the Rochdale game. Let us make use of the full depth of our squad and afford some game time to the likes of Josh Scowen and Declan John. For the acid test that was Ipswich, Parkinson clearly wanted to stick with his ‘tried and tested’ team, which is fine, but with players like Semenyo doubtless hungry for their chance and the games coming thick and fast, the case for rotation is a strong one.
Belief and confidence will be in ample supply in the dressing room right now. Harness it, translate it into performances, and keep the machine motoring. Promotion is certainly achievable, but our margin for error is razor-thin. The challenge will be as much mental as physical over the coming weeks.