Under the most unusual circumstances, our 2020/2021 league campaign is finally up and running. Instead of being greeted by a raucous crowd of 30,000 at the Stadium of Light, the Lads took to the field in the cavernous empty surroundings of our Wearside home as Bristol Rovers came to town.
The tumbleweed was, metaphorically speaking, blowing through the stadium ahead of the match, but on the pitch was where it really mattered. After a decent enough pre-season, during which several players had acquitted themselves extremely well, there was a fair amount of optimism, as well as expectation.
Pre-match, Twitter was alight with the usual debate within minutes of Sunderland’s team being announced. Did George Dobson merit his place over Josh Scowen? Would Tom Flanagan prove to be the weak link at the back? Given the amount of pressure Phil Parkinson will be under this season, his team selections are bound to be scrutinised at every turn, but at this early stage, perhaps it was reasonable to put some faith in the manager and trust his selection, even if it did have an element of ‘safety first’ about it.
And then - as it has done so many times in recent years - reality kicked in, and Sunderland’s plans were ripped up within a matter of minutes as Lee Burge blotted his copybook with one of the most brainlessly-conceded penalties you are likely to see this season.
Bristol Rovers duly took the lead from twelve yards, and that set the tone for an absolute abomination of a first half in which we barely created anything of note while simultaneously looking as timid and as nervous, in and out of possession, as we have done for far too long.
It was a perfect storm: edgy in defence, ponderous and bereft of ideas in midfield (as George Dobson and Max Power struggled to impose themselves on the game) and absolutely toothless upfront.
Positives from the first half were desperately hard to findn fairness to the much-maligned Denver Hume, he did attempt to get things moving with some decent balls whipped in from the flank, but in attack it was a tale of sheer frustration as Chris Maguire, Will Grigg and Aiden O’Brien were left chasing lost causes. It wasn’t acceptable, and nowhere near the standard you’d expect from a team with designs on promotion.
Surely the second half would be an improvement?
It was. After Chris Maguire’s twenty-five yarder was tipped around the post, Sunderland began to show more confidence, with some good link-up play and much more conviction in our passing. The problems again arose with a lack of pace to enable us to stretch the Rovers defence, and how worryingly blunt we were in the penalty area. Glorious chances in the shape of headers from Dobson and Aiden O’Brien were missed, and it was beginning to feel as though a damaging defeat was on the cards.
Earlier in the summer, I said that Maguire was our most important player, and just when we were in desperate need of something out of nothing he proved it once again as he cracked a shot from eighteen yards past Jaakkola in the Rovers goal.
Blushes spared, and a point salvaged, as the game eventually faded out to a draw, albeit with the additional twist of Dobson being shown a red card, compounding a thoroughly wretched afternoon for him.
Now, you might accuse me of jumping the gun or panicking too early, but I really do believe that Parkinson should be feeling the heat now. Ordinarily, salvaging a draw when defeat feels inevitable is not a bad result, but in this instance, I can’t feel anything but a sense of frustration. This was a great opportunity to make a statement of intent and to show this league that we mean business, but all we were left with was an underwhelming point, and yet more questions about recruitment and formations, as well as the renewed argument about whether Parkinson is up to the job. Judging by his worryingly detached tone during his post-match interview, those doubts aren’t going away anytime soon.
After this missed opportunity, the Oxford fixture now takes on more significance, and there will need to be a significant upturn in performance on every level. We cannot afford too many more early-season slip ups like this one.